Night Train to Hardwick – Afterwords

Well, after three and a half months we’ve reached the end of another one of Roy’s strange adventures. Hopefully you all enjoyed that smaller, more intimate tale. One thing that writing these pulpy stories has really clarified to me is how fluid the process of crafting a story is. I spent a lot of time jumping from one thread to another. You can generally break down a story into: characters, events and themes. As a writer I’ve always found events come the easiest to me, with characters and themes building out of them. I have occasionally started with an idea for a theme that birthed a scene I really wanted to write, and built the characters and events to go with that. But generally I assemble a story from a bunch of different ideas for scenes that coalesce into character beats and generate a thematic through line as they get refined. 

A Roy Harper adventure presents different issues. While I’ve written a trilogy of books and used recurring characters before, the Sumter novels were planned ahead of time and the characters had defined arcs throughout and my recurring characters did fine on their first outing but I struggled with them afterwards. So telling a series of adventures that had separate settings, supporting characters and thematic elements to work with is a new challenge for me. Hopefully I’ve done alright. 

Most people say you should start with one of the three factors I mentioned and of the three characters and themes are the most often sited. Events – or what many people would call the plot – are often a distant third in the trifecta of story. I’ve often felt like an anomaly among storytellers given my intense focus on them in writing although I recognize the emphasis on these elements may just be the influence of highly intimate storytelling mediums like movies and TV on the modern zeitgeist. Either way, I’ve persisted in my own style until now. 

And I don’t expect I will change much. But I have gained a new appreciation for the care needed when working with an existing character. Roy has strong character elements like regret, a desire for penance and redemption, and a single minded focus on what’s in front of him. These grew as much out of what Firespinner needed him to be as any intention on my own part. However, as I put together the events of Night Train to Hardwick I found that many of the events clashed badly with Roy’s character. His natural response to them would draw him away from his strongest character elements and force me to ignore them, downplaying what made writing him and (hopefully) reading him interesting. Alternatively I could introduce new character elements to examine through the lens of events or I could modify events to suit Roy better. 

Introducing new character elements risked diluting what I already had before Roy was firmly established in my mind and that of the audience. So I decided not to do that. Which really only left me with the option to modify events. 

I didn’t want to the situation to suit Roy too closely, so as to avoid contrivance. In the end, I may have failed at that. However, the new series of events matched Roy much better and I feel we got a great chance to see his deepest foibles play out in new and interesting ways. Exploring the relation between the three big story elements was definitely fun but also an exercise in storycraft that I think was good for me as a writer. In all this I consider Hardwick to be a success not only as a story but as an opportunity to develop my skills. 

My goal with the Roy Harper adventures is simple, fun storytelling. I hope that you enjoyed this outing with the character and that you’ll return for my next fiction project. In the mean time, as is my habit, I will be taking the next week off as I prepare my next project. There will be about a month of essays between now and the launch of that project, so if you like my thoughts on fiction there’s something to look forward to in the interim. Until then, take care! 

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Fourteen – Coda

Previous Chapter

Roy had never heard of someone losing their sight because they used magic but apparently that was part of how stonesong worked. Not a great exchange in general, in his opinion. Particularly bad when you had to help the mostly blind woman down off the roof of a moving sky train. They managed it safely, but it took work. He had to walk Cassandra down the ladder as her brother assisted him from below. As they parted ways she paused for a moment with her head resting against his chest. Then she was steady on her own feet again and he took them forward, locking down the baggage car behind him.

Once he had the Fairchilds safely back in their shared compartment he went to find the assistant conductor. The small hours of the morning went to writing down details, completing the conductor’s share of the paperwork and walking the train in his place. Someone had to manage the train, after all. The only upside of the whole mess was that losing the weight of the caboose allowed them to arrive in Hardwick a full ten minutes early.

With the train firmly on the ground once again Roy found himself wishing the passengers safe travels and securing the train until a new caboose could be brought on. He didn’t look forward to his uncle Alan’s letters about this mess. The train company wouldn’t be happy replacing an entire car but Hunter Colbert had started the fight and that gave Roy some ammunition to use to defend himself and he was confident his uncle’s lawyers could sort everything out with time. Not that Roy planned on being involved in that process. Some magics were too dark to tamper with, even for him.

Since all danger was now behind him or at some nebulous point in the future Roy headed to Hardwick’s only hotel, the Carlton, to check in and get some sleep. To his surprise he found Brandon Fairchild waiting for him by the reception desk. Roy gave the younger man a skeptical look and asked, “Something I can do for you, Mr. Fairchild?”

“Allow us to buy you breakfast?”

Roy favored him with a grouchy glare. “If I must, though I’d much prefer a nap followed by a full night’s sleep.”

“Dinner, then?”

Given how much nonsense the Fairchilds had put up with the night before Roy suspected a simple ‘no’ wouldn’t be enough to deter them. So he sighed and said, “Better order two pots of coffee.”

A moment later he was seated at a small, round table across from the pair of them. Cassandra’s eyes were still unfocused so it didn’t seem her vision had returned, but she still turned to him as he approached. It was eerie. He took the seat Brandon offered and asked, “What can I do for you two? I do appreciate your assistance on the train, particularly as it turned out to be a personal matter and not railway business, but I don’t know as I’m ready to take on any new work at the moment.”

“Actually, we wanted to ask you some questions,” Brandon said.

“About the train?”

“Tangentially.” He glanced at his sister.

“I’ve listened to all your conversations with my brother,” she began, “and while you’ve been quite specific about your thoughts on our orders of magic you’ve said very little concerning your own. Quite deliberately, I think.”

Roy was tempted to speak. But that was obviously what she expected when she paused and he decided not to dance to her tune. He took a sip of his coffee instead. Grimace at the bitterness. When she realized he had no intention of commenting Cassandra continued. “When we saw you on the train’s roof we understood why. You’re a firemind.”

“Dolmen burner,” Roy corrected, stirring cream into his coffee.

“A distinction without a difference,” Brandon said.

“No.” Roy set the cream down with an emphatic thud. “This isn’t Avalon, Mr. Fairchild, it’s Columbia. One thing we learned from the people we met here is the importance of names. Of precise speech. There is a difference between a firemind and a dolmen burner, and you’d best respect it.”

The younger man was taken aback by the vehemence in Roy’s statement. “Oh? What difference is that?”

“A firemind is a talent awakened in a druid as he trains under the Stone Circle, after taking his oaths,” Roy said. “A dolmen burner is a curse, laid on a man who took part in destroying both Circle and oath.”

To his surprise Cassandra nodded affably. “So we guessed, based on what your captain’s ghosts said. But I noticed the sound of an artifact of the Stone Circle on your person as you were helping me down from the train tops. And it clearly belongs to you, or you wouldn’t be able to keep it. Did no one tell you? Or perhaps you found it after the last owner died? There’s precedent for it.”

“Is that a fact?” A number of possible remarks flitted through Roy’s mind but it wasn’t his place to bring the old owner of Pelinore’s Journal into the conversation. “Well, as it happens I was given it and told what it was. No one mentioned not keeping it, in fact I understand it’s quite the opposite. I can’t lose it. I was also given to understand it chooses its owner somehow and that was me, which I admit doesn’t make much sense but with Morainhenge gone I suppose it’s any port in a storm. Does it come with membership in the knightly ranks as well?”

“It doesn’t,” Brandon said. “Not exactly. But I think the average druid would consider you closer to one of our own than you think.”

Roy grunted and stirred his coffee absently, then sipped it, finding the taste more compatible with his palate. “So? What do you want, then? I could try and return the Journal to you, if that’s what you’re after.”

Cassandra shook her head, lips curling in amusement. “No, Mr. Harper, it belongs to you now. There’s little we could do to separate it from you.”

“Short of killing you,” Brandon added, “which wouldn’t be terribly chivalrous of us and may be outside our capabilities as well.”

“No maybes about it.” Roy drummed his fingers on his coffee mug and waited for them to go on. But it was their turn to wait on him. “Did you want to read the Journal? Is that even possible?”

“I’m afraid I don’t know,” Cassandra said. “But probably not. Certainly it isn’t appropriate, as Pelinore was a contemporary of Arthur himself and the journal undoubtedly records many secrets from the King’s founding of the knightly orders. Things not meant for the world at large.”

“Or even the rank and file of the Stone Circle,” Brandon added. “I won’t learn many of the secret histories for years and years, if at all.”

Roy reached into the inner pocket of his jacket, pulled the journal out and turned it over in his hands. Its appearance had changed slightly since he first received it, gaining a reddish sheen to the black leather cover and shrinking a touch to better fit his pocket. But it still looked a worn, old, overused thing. “It really contains those kinds of secrets? Hardly looks it.”

“The best secrets are those everyone passes over,” Brandon said.

But Cassandra’s brow was furrowing. “You sound as if you haven’t read it.”

“I haven’t. There are things I have to do before its fully mine so I can only read the first few pages as of now.” Roy tucked it back in his jacket. “Was there something you hoped to learn from it?”

“When I came of age,” Cassandra said, “I was called to find the Secret of Steel. The elders of Stonehenge gave me a list of five texts lost to us that may contain clues to discovering it…”

Roy realized that both Fairchilds were quiet and staring at him. Perhaps he had nodded off. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”

“You know something, don’t you?” Cassandra’s voice was barely a whisper.

“About what?” Roy asked.

“Steel,” Brandon said.

“Now what makes you think that?”

“For starters,” Cassandra said, “you didn’t ask what was stolen, like most people do.”

“That’s…” Roy fumbled for a response. “Listen, it’s nothing from the Journal itself. To tell you the truth I don’t know much about it, but once, years ago, I met a man with a gleaming sword made of a metal that looked like aluminum but he called steel.”

Brandon leaned forward, his voice soft. “Did he know how it was made?”

The ghost of a smile crossed Roy’s face. “From fire in the heart and iron in the blood.” The siblings looked crestfallen and Roy smothered a laugh. “He said it was forged iron, which is impossible since iron resists all magic. It’s not like throwing it in a fire will do anything. Only gold can overpower iron and even then only to alloy it. And before you ask, yes I know what gilded iron looks like and no his sword wasn’t made out of it. Steel is a much different beast.”

“Do you…” Cassandra hesitated.

“Know how to find him?” Roy asked. She nodded, sheepish. “I had no reason to stay in touch with him until this very moment.”

“What was his name?”

“He never told us.” Roy gave a furtive glance around the room to make sure no one could accidentally overhear then leaned forward, pitched his voice lower and and said, “But the Sanna call him The Strongest Man in the World. From time to time you hear rumors of him, floating around the West.”

There was a long silence around the table. Finally Brandon set his tea cup aside, brows furrowed. “I trust that’s not some kind of joke?”

“It’s not.” Roy sighed. He’d tried to explain the events of Tyson’s Run, during the coldest days of the Summer of Snow, but few of those he’d told the tale believed him and those who did were reluctant believers. The Fairchilds would have to remain skeptics. “I’m willing to allow you to study any notes I transcribe from the Journal if they relate to steel, but based on what I’ve seen it’s not really a book concerned with that kind of human innovation. In the mean time, you’re free to try and find the Strongest Man in the World if you wish. It’s not a thing I recommend, though.”

“Why is that?” Cassandra asked.

“A man of his reputation never works for free and always asks a high price.”

“I suppose he also comes with many enemies,” Brandon added.

“None that I’ve heard of. From what I’ve seen those he makes don’t last very long.”

“And how do we stay in touch with you while we look for this mythical man?” Cassandra asked. “You’ve said we’re free to look at your notes but there are other old records Morainhenge held that we’re looking for. We’ll need some way to stay in touch.”

She was right, of course, and there was a very simple solution to the problem she pointed out. He just wasn’t sure he liked it. But Pelinore’s Journal weighed heavily on him, a reminder that he owed the Stone Circle a great deal in both penance and now in duty. Perhaps these two were an opportunity to begin paying off those debts. “Very well, Ms. Cassandra. I live in Kegan’s Bluff, the southwest junction of the T and K and Sommerville Rail lines. I don’t know what kinds of steps you’re taking to recover your lost texts but its an excellent hub for travel and information. An ideal place to look for books or men.”

Brandon nodded thoughtfully. “It’s as good a starting place as any, I suppose. Does Bennett’s Bank have a branch near there? It would be unfortunate if we had to leave town whenever our expense funds run low.”

“I’m sure you can arrange something with one of the banks in town,” Roy said, gathering himself for the next bit. “However I think I can simplify things for you. You’re welcome to the use of my guest rooms for as long as you chose to remain in Kegan’s Bluff, it’s much cheaper than staying in a hotel.”

“That’s very generous of you, Mr. Harper,” Cassandra said. “We’ll consider it and let you know what we decide.”

“Do as you see fit. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to find some place to close my eyes.” Roy got to his feet and staggered out to the desk. As he waited in line for the chance to check in he tried to track how he wound up there. Ultimately he suspected it didn’t matter why he’d stumbled across his unexpected guests – and for some reason he was certain they’d accept his offer – what was more important was where he went from there.

He was going to bed. Beyond that, there was far more to the West than the ghosts of his past and hopefully for the moment such things were behind him.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Thirteen – Roots in the Air

Previous Chapter

The touch of a ghost was terrible. Even as Brandon wrapped himself in layers of bark the attacks of the ghost army were freezing spiderwebs of ice crystals onto his clothes and skin. Brandon could feel the cold creeping past the yew and into his flesh. He had some of the resilience of the tree that shared his body so he could withstand deep cold for days or months, but only if he was willing to lapse into hibernation.

With Cassie behind him that was a luxury he didn’t have.

Her song was carrying the ghosts away with growing speed but proximity didn’t equal efficacy and many of the ghosts most determined to push past him seemed the most resistant to her magic. Lobbing a short burst of fire from his saber dispersed a ghost easily. But as often as not they were reforming back at the core of the horde and returning for another pass. It wasn’t like he was in danger of letting any of the spirits slip past him but the fire reserve in his saber’s sulfurite was getting low.

The horde was thinning out on top. The center of the mass was moving closer to them and, as the ghosts passed on, it was dropping lower as well. There was enough thinning of the ranks for Brandon to make out the train’s conductor at the heart of it.

As the horde thinned fewer and fewer ghosts were coming on the offensive, more and more remaining with their master to keep him aloft. And that was when Brandon realized what was really happening. It wasn’t because cause he couldn’t stay in the air any longer, although that point was coming soon. He was coming to grips. “Hurry up, Cassie,” he muttered, “I don’t know how long I can hold him off.”

A subtle shift in the harmonics of her song set the frame of the train car under his feet vibrating. It was the only answer she gave. Hopefully it meant the song would, indeed, send the ghosts away faster but in the mean time a new issue crept up. He’d sent roots out of his feet and into the roof of the car to keep himself in place. But now the vibration was splintering the roof around them. There was no time to count ghosts to see if they were vanishing faster as the conductor had landed on the car only a few feet away.

He set the army of ghosts on Brandon in waves. Ice and cold rolled over him with freezing, hungry jaws and any protection Brandon’s clothes and bark might have offered failed in the face of the raging dead. Desperate, Brandon overloaded the sulfurite in his sword. It released all the power of fire stored within in a single burst, overflowing the weapon’s fuller and blasting the area with a wave of heat as strong as summer. Brandon’s layers of chilled bark kept all but the barest breath of that heat from reaching him. But the ghosts suffered terribly.

For a brief moment the space between Brandon and the conductor was entirely clear of specters, giving a brief glimpse of the portly man batting out sparks on his clothes. Then the ghosts were charging forward again. The horde had thinned even more but, with no fire in his sword, Brandon had no way to fend them off. In fact, the blade had shattered in the blast. He couldn’t even cut down the conductor if he charged him so there was no choice but to go the other way.

He pulled his roots up and pushed Cassie backwards, trying to make space. Grasping spectral hands still clutched at him, robbing him of warmth, but they were coming much slower than before. For a brief moment Brandon contemplated victory. He could transform the Yew rod currently binding him to his sister into a spear to kill the conductor with. But even as he dug his fingers into the weapon he realized it was futile. The cold had take a much greater toll on the dead yew than the living wood rooted in his body. It was far too brittle to shift without breaking.

Brandon snarled and threw the hilt of his weapon at the conductor. However even with the whip like strength of the yew behind his throw the ghostly winds easily deflected the hunk of metal before it reached its target. The bearded man leered at them, screaming, “To bad, Mr. Fairchild! Years go Avalon chose to stay out of the Lakeshire war. Wouldn’t even provide neutral diplomats! Now you finally pick a side a decade late and to top it all off you chose the wrong one!”

The statement barely made sense to Brandon. He little of the war in Columbia when he was a child but he did know there were several raging in Europe at the same time, a few going so far as to involve Avalon itself. It wasn’t like the Crown had the manpower to get involved with all of them. Then again, expecting coherent thought from the man might be a bit too much. Constantly consorting with the dead was a burden on sanity that few could endure for long.

“I don’t much care for your opinion on the decisions of the Crown or his Lords,” Brandon said. “I don’t even care why you’ve done all this. But the dead belong to the grave, don’t torture them any longer by keeping them here.”

The conductor lunged at him, his fingers cracking through frozen bark with ease. Brandon jerked away in pain and surprise. The conductor’s fingers dug in and he ripped an entire layer of bark away, shattering the roots of his belt and the yew rod that held Cassie in place. She staggered away, her song vanishing on a panicked note.

“Brandon, what happened?” She asked, the fear in her voice straining against her self control.

“Keep singing,” he said through gritted teeth.

“No!” The conductor screamed. “Enough singing! Enough of the whispering voices! I just want you all to be quiet and leave me alone!”

The man reached for Brandon’s face, layers of frost forming on his hand, face and hair. As the conductor’s fingers closed on Brandon’s forehead a surge of wind swept up from the bottom of the train. An angry red glow lit the scene from below.

As Brandon grappled with the conductor his mind grappled with these details. His mind presented him with a solution first. “Updraft.”

Confusion crossed the other man’s face when he heard the word. “What?”

Harper shot up over the edge of the sky train, a red hot piece of aluminum dragging him up by one arm. His other hand grabbed the edge of the train car and Roy pivoted around it. The fire in the aluminum jumped free, circling Harper’s head like a rogue sun. The rod of metal swung about and slammed into the conductor’s head with a sizzling thunk. The metal was still so soft it wrapped halfway around the conductor’s head covering his mouth and cutting off the man’s pained shriek.

The conductor’s hands flew up and tugged at the chunk of metal. At first the movement was frantic but it quickly grew sluggish as he slumped to his knees. Harper put a foot in the man’s side and shoved, sending his corpse toppling off the edge of the train and leaving the two of them alone at the end of the train.

“This isn’t over, Harper!” The eviscerated ghost from before appeared out of the horde, screaming. “I promise we will haunt you…”

His voice faded to a whisper as Cassie’s song surged forth with renewed vigor. The conductor’s death had weakened the hold the dead had on the world of the living and the renewed song seemed to wipe the remaining ghosts away like a rag wiped away the dew. They all vanished in a few seconds, save for one. Sam Jenkins lingered near the end of the train, a wistful look on his face, a hand raised in farewell Then he looked up to the sky and faded as well.

Harper took a deep breath and let it out, stripping his dueling gloves off. Brandon noticed the palm of the glove that held the aluminum during his brief flight had burned entirely through. “Well,” Harper said, rubbing that hand against his side with a wince. “If I ever see another ghost it’ll be too soon.”

That put an uncomfortable thought in Brandon’s mind. “Cassie?” He yelled, dashing back to her. “What can you see?”

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Eleven – Front to Back

Previous Chapter

They were halfway up the length of the train when Cassie grabbed Brandon’s arm and hissed, “Did you hear that?”

“No,” he replied, eyes scanning the walls and corners of the public car but unable to pinpoint a source for her mysterious sound. Not even the ghosts were present at the moment. “What did it sound like?”

“Some kind of pipe or flute,” she said. “It’s playing a marching tune.”

“That’s probably a bad sign,” Brandon muttered, moving faster towards the forward door. The whole car bucked under their feet and two dozen voices screamed, gasped or sobbed in unison. “That’s even worse.”

“Something hit the train’s roof,” Cassie said.

“Where?”

“Two cars ahead? Maybe three?” Her eyes tracked something along the ceiling of the car. A loud bang and the ceiling cracked as a heavy weight rolled along the roof. Cassie’s expression turned to horror. “That’s Mr. Harper!”

Brandon immediately turned about, following the clunking sounds along the roof. “Is he saying anything you can make out?”

“Not over the sound of the army.”

“Dust and ashes,” Brandon muttered, feeling the yew dig deeper into his bones as it woke to danger, filaments weaving through his muscles and hardening his skin like bark. When he hit the breezeway at the end of the car he looked up. Harper was not in sight. So Brandon unhooked the mesh around the passage, reached one hand up and hauled himself onto the roof of the train.

The wind grabbed him as soon as his head broke over the top of the train car and tears filled his eyes as the force of the air assulted them. With the wind came a steady stream of horrific wails and screams. In the distance, empty grassland and high bluffs moved past at a pace made deceptively slow by the miles between the train and the horizon. Brandon put a hand up to block some of the wind and his vision cleared more. There, on the roof of the next car down, was Roy Harper, wielding his iron knife in a vain attempt to hold back a raging horde of ghosts.

It was hard to pick out details through the overlapping layers of spectral shapes. Harper’s body was clear for only split seconds at a time and, by straining a bit, Brandon could tell that there was some kind of solid form at the center of the horde, held aloft by dozens or hundreds of ghosts clustering around it. Waves of ghosts were buffeting against Harper in spite of his best efforts to keep them away. By the time Brandon got up on the roof himself Harper had taken another spill, tumbling halfway down the length of the car. The ghosts were trying to knock him clean off the train but he was staying low enough that he could turn a slip from a lethal mistake into a painful fall along the roof.

“Harper!” Brandon called, trying to find his own balance as the wind from the train’s passage buffeted him. “Push this way!”

Whether because the wind took the words away or because the sound of the ghost army drowned out his voice Harper didn’t hear. Instead he took another step back and hopped over the gap to the next car back. Brandon marveled at how certain his footing was, how easily Harper kept his feet in spite of the rushing air and raging ghosts.

Unexpected hands clamped on to his shoulders and Cassie’s voice came over the wind. “Get me closer.”

“What are you doing here?” Brandon demanded. “You can barely make yourself heard.”

“They don’t have to hear me for the power to take hold.” The tone of her voice was so startling that he turned to look and saw the most focused, ferocious expression he’d ever seen on her face.

“Don’t let go,” Brandon said, digging his heels in and shifting his focus from the yew within to that without, digging the short yew rod he carried out of his belt. It sprouted roots that looped up and around his shoulders and Cassie’s hands. With his sister mostly secured he quickly pushed towards the other end of the train car, muscles and yew roots working in tandem to move down the train.

In some ways having the wind at his back made traversing the car harder, not easier. Each step required deliberation, caution and precision or the wind could blow them right off the roof. Even with the weight of two people together it was difficult. At first he and Cassie couldn’t move in coordination. In fact they nearly tripped each other the first time they tried to take a step and, to make matters worse, Cassie’s hair came free of its bun and whipped into his face adding another complication.

Harper didn’t seem to have any better time of it. No matter how he tried Brandon couldn’t get any closer to him. The other man kept giving ground before the army of ghosts to the point where there was almost no train left! By dint of practice and a careful squint Brandon closed the distance between them to half a train car and the ghosts were starting to take note of him and his sister. The sound of spectral wailing seemed to change in tone and tenor as the spotted Cassie. “Poor things,” she said. “Most of them have no idea why they’re here. They’ve been shackled by one of their own.”

“So they have.” Brandon was so startled by Sam Jenkins’ unexpected arrival that he nearly took a fatal slip.

“Dust and ashes, warn a man next time,” he grumbled.

“You can see him there near the top.” Jenkins pointed vaguely towards a glowing mass near the top of the ghost army.

If he squinted, Brandon thought he could make out a slightly brighter figure in the overlapping mass Jenkins was pointing to. “Must be the ghost that was haunting Harper,” Brandon said. “He said it was a Captain. How do I put it down?”

“You can’t,” Cassie replied. “Ghosts are magic rooted in a vessel of water vapor. There’s nothing solid for you to cut or break. I’ll have to siphon off the power giving them shape.”

“Cassandra-”

“I can hear the harmonies, Brandon! This was the call that brought us here! Just keep the ghosts at bay as best you can.”

There were some things people had to chose for themselves. Once Affirmed an adult at the age of fifteen there was little family or friends could do to change someone’s mind once they made it up and, for better or worse, the Fairchild gift had fallen to Cassandra. If she chose to use it there was nothing he could do. Just keep her safe. “Very well, then, if they turn nasty I’ll keep the ghosts back as best I can.”

“Use the thing that you used to call me,” Jenkins said. “It’s got a darkness to it, to be sure, but that’ll encourage most of them to to move on rather than stay near it. But Roy said not to do anything until he reaches the caboose.”

“What?” Brandon demanded. “Why?”

“Best of luck, Fairchilds! Go in peace, for we’ll not meet in this world again.” The ghost vanished into the wind.

“Our Lady guide you to warm hearthfires,” Cassie called.

“Our Lord call you to walk with the storm,” Brandon said. Then, as an afterthought, “If they even have either of those in the Great Beyond.”

“Let them get a few steps further ahead,” Cassie said. “Best not to draw their attention to us before we begin.”

“It might be too late for that,” Brandon said, eyeing the fringes of the army. Ghosts there still eyed them with suspicion.

He was wondering how they might go about distracting them when Harper tumbled off the edge of the baggage car, disappearing into the gap between it and the caboose.

Night Train to Hardwick Chapter Nine – Chorus of the Lost

Previous Chapter

The ghosts were everywhere. Even in the orphan’s public car, previously swept clear, specters were flitting through the walls briefly. However echoes of Cassie’s magic remained there, driving the ghosts away quickly. It left a strange impression, as if the edges of the car had turned blurry with the faces of ghosts flicking in and out. The other cars were worse, with ghost flailing, yelling and swooping at people at random intervals.

“Strange that we haven’t attracted any ghosts,” Brandon muttered.

“We’re probably too far away from any remnants of people we know,” Cassie said. “Small blessings from the Lady there.”

“Are you sure none of this is dangerous?” Brandon asked, watching as a living woman struggled against tears, clutching at the intangible form of a boy on the seat beside her.

“So long as they remain in the normal classes of ghost they don’t have any physical power,” Cassie said, looking away from the scene uneasily. “But that doesn’t mean specters can’t manipulate people verbally, in fact they’re uniquely suited to it because they know those they’re bound to. They’re just as dangerous to the mind as any living creature. Haunts – ghosts that are bound to places or objects – are less likely to do it but all I’m seeing and hearing are specters.”

Brandon stepped out into the airway between the last public car and the luggage car, eyeing the growing swarms of ghosts that billowed through the night sky, voices merging with the wind in a constant surussus of half heard, unsettling words. “What happens when they stop being normal ghosts?”

“Then you have a revenant,” Cassie called over the wind. “Or a poltergeist if you ask the Teutonic wizards. Either word means the same – a ghost that can fling objects, freeze people and is no longer bound to a single person, place or thing.”

The luggage car door slammed shut behind them but to Brandon’s surprise the piles of luggage were swarming with just as many specters as the rest of the train. “Interesting. Are we changing our mind about there being no haunts on this train?”

“This may be the locus of power Mr. Harper was looking for. That, or every piece of clothing and luggage is bound to a haunt,” Cassie murmured.

Brandon frowned and started looking through the luggage carefully. Most of it was in trunks, locked closed, difficult if not impossible for a regular person to open. Smaller items were kept in wooden cubbyholes with locked doors, which Brandon knew could only be opened by a conductor with a master key or the passenger who rented it, who was given the relevant key.

“If an object was the focus of all this, how big would it be?” He asked.

Cassie shrugged, resting her ear against one of the trunks while working the fistful of Harper’s magical scrap in one hand. “It could be as small as a jewel or curio portrait.”

Brandon grunted and closed his eyes. Cassie might be able to hear and speak to things beyond but his initiation into the stone circle had given him the strength and heart of the yew. He ran his fingers along the doors of the cubbies and the lids of trunks, looking for the telltale signs of recent human touch. Behind him, Cassie began humming quietly. Brandon frowned, annoyed that she kept pushing her gift when she was in no danger. No matter how Harper’s gizmo interacted with her talents it wouldn’t help her forever. Either its magic would give out or Harper would take it back but the habit of relying on it would remain.

And at the rate she was going she’d be blind by thirty.

Then again all stone singers had to face that reality sooner or later, even if they never consciously used their magic. He thought he’d accepted that, watching his father slowly lose his vision as he grew up. But it turned out dreading his sister’s eventual decline had its own kind of horror to it. He realized he’d stopped searching and pushed himself forward again. A few minutes later he reached the far end of the baggage car and sighed, shifting his shoulders as the yew roots relaxed and his magic went dormant. “Nothing here. I’d guess no one needed their luggage in the last twelve hours. Any chance someone set their ghost attracting talisman earlier in the day and we just saw the effects now?”

“Most magic dealing with spirits only functions at night,” Cassie said between bars of her tune. Another half minute of humming and she opened her eyes again. “None of these ghosts seems more powerful than the others. If there’s a ghost general behind this its not at this end of the train.”

“Could the magic be set up one night and activated the next?”

“Not if sunlight touches it.” She gestured to the high windows of the train car. “So the windows make it unlikely the spell was cast out in the open. If none of this luggage has been tampered with then there’s no place for the spell to survive the dawn.”

Brandon glanced at the back of the train car. “That just leaves the caboose.”

“That’s the crew’s territory,” Cassie said, doubtful. “Why would one of them sabotage their own train?”

“Maybe they’re not,” Brandon countered. “Maybe one of them is just haunted by the ghost general, as you put it.”

“Well either way they aren’t going to let us in. The crew cars are always locked,” Cassie mused. “Though I’m sure Mr. Harper could gain entry. Perhaps we should go and find him.”

She turned and headed past him towards the door but Brandon stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Cassie. When you heard the call, what was it?”

“I told you, Brandon, there weren’t words. Just stonesong. And I could tell it was coming from this direction.”

“Cassie. Just because I can’t hear stonesong myself doesn’t mean I don’t know anything about it. My father is a stonesinger, same as yours.” He gave her a knowing smile. “And he knew us well enough to warn me of the kinds of things you might learn but not share. So. Out with it. What did you hear when the call came?”

She sighed. “A sound like an ocean of trees, all folding in on themselves until nothing was left but the whisper of wind through the leaves.”

A frown pressed down on Brandon’s face. “And that was enough for you to rush us out onto this sky train with less than half an hour to spare?”

His sister nodded glumly. “I’ve heard it before.”

“Really?”

“Not exactly the same, you understand,” she hastened to add. “But something very similar when I was nine and we went to Stonehenge for your initiation into the First Circle.”

“You believe there’s a druid out here somewhere,” Brandon said, realization dawning. “Perhaps even Harper himself. He knew enough to recognize me, although he didn’t identify himself as such.”

“Morainhenge is gone,” Cassie replied. “There can’t be any proper druids here anymore, can there? Besides, Harper talks like a Regular, not a Lakeshire man.”

Brandon snorted, she was wrong on the first count and they were hardly the best judges on the second. The again, there were many things she could hear that he couldn’t. “Then we keep looking for the druid that’s the source. Do you think he’s connected to the ghosts here, somehow?”

She shook her head. “No druid I’ve met sounds remotely like that. But I have heard the sound before, from the Book of Linds.”

“Is that a fact.” Which changed all the implications entirely, didn’t it. “You were called by a relic, not a druid.”

Cassie nodded. “Either the Manual of Sulfur or Pelinor’s Journal is somewhere nearby. I can’t say where, just that it’s in this direction.”

“Well,” Brandon said, “that’s useful if we survive these ghosts. I doubt either one is close enough to help us right this moment.”

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 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 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.

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 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.