A Candle in the Wind – Chapter Five

Previous Chapter

Riker’s Cove was quiet that evening. There was nothing unusual about that, of course, but the quiet had a sinister cast to it. A trio of small creatures with a fell light in their eyes crept through the streets, breaking off in different directions and vanishing into the shadows. Then, just after sunset, a wistful melody carried through town. The mood over the town lightened. The sheriff hustled through town to a house near the water.

For the next hour or so two small forms watched that house, their eyes alight with anger and uncertainty. Then they abruptly got up and ran off. They scrambled down the beach to the long pier leading to the lighthouse and the statue of Jonathan Riker watched them go.

There were still many shadows over Riker’s Cove but for the moment the waxing moon banished them out to sea.

Brandon studied the sheriff named Avery with curious eyes. Harper had mentioned that many of the druids from Columbia’s Stone Circle still walked the land but Brandon hadn’t expected to find them holding office in public service. He’d assumed resentment or distrust would preclude it.

Warwick worked his magic for some ten minutes on the boy they’d found by the docks, apparently using a thistledown candle to peer into his memories in an attempt to learn the fate of other missing children from the village. Finally he admitted defeat and extinguished the candle, then thanked the family and spent a few minutes more reassuring them they’d done all they could to help find the other two missing children. The sheriff also took the time to check the house’s perimeter. Finally he approached Brandon and his sister. “Well met, Sir Fairchild,” Warwick said. He touched his fingertips to forehead, a gesture that represented removing a helmet among friends. “I have a lot of questions to ask you but I feel we’ve imposed on the Strathmores long enough. Would you and your companion, Miss…”

“Cassandra Fairchild, sheriff.” Cassie dipped slightly in an abbreviated curtsy.

“If you two would care to join me in my office then we could discuss things without bothering them further.”

Warwick turned and gestured to the door with obvious meaning. Brandon gave Cassie a questioning look. His sister had been quietly humming a tuneless note from when they’d discovered the boy out by the docks at dusk until shortly after the sheriff arrived. Since then she’d kept her peace, which he took as a good sign. Now she gave him a slight nod, telling him she was in fact done with whatever she’d been doing. “Of course, sheriff,” Brandon said. “It would be our pleasure.”

Cassie looped her arm through the crook of Brandon’s elbow and allowed him to lead her through the town. While it was of low intensity she’d spent a long time flexing her talent for stonesong. He wasn’t sure what the exact price for that would be but her vision had to be impaired to some degree at the moment. So Brandon kept an eye on her steps as they walked. He didn’t want to embarrass her by waving a hand in front of her face while the sheriff was present but he wasn’t about to let her fall flat on her face either. However, even if she was completely blind for the time being she could still listen.

While they crossed the town she closed her eyes and tilted her head this way and that as the cool ocean breeze swept through her hair. If she heard anything unusual she didn’t mention it. They reached the town jail without incident. “Thank you for being so accommodating,” Warwick said as he unlocked the front door and ushered them in. “The last month and a half have been trying for the Strathmores. I’d rather they have their peace.”

“I’m happy to give it to them, sheriff.” Brandon replied, guiding Cassie over the step and into the building. “It’s the duty of every Knight on errantry to uphold the virtues of Chivalry. How could I ignore a child in need? How could I impose on his family once the need was met?”

“Fair questions,” Warwick said. He closed the door to the jail and offered the two chairs in the front room. He perched on the edge of his desk. “I’d say your answers do you credit as a knight. I am curious, though. How did you know Stu was in distress? I’m told the ensorcelled children like him appear normal to the passing observer.”

“Perhaps,” Cassie said as she made herself comfortable in her chair. “But he didn’t sound normal to a stone singer.”

Both Brandon and Avery raised their eyebrows. Avery presumably in surprise that she was a stone singer and Brandon that she so easily revealed that fact. Avery set his candle on the corner of the desk and inspected Cassie with more care. “That’s a rare gift, Ms. Fairchild. If its not prying too much into your secrets may I ask in what way you determined something was wrong? Could you repeat it?”

“Every person has a melody to their life, sheriff.” Cassie hummed a few bars of slow, almost sleepy music. “That’s yours, for example. A thoughtful, deliberate tune to reflect a trained and careful mind. When a person is ensorcelled, their tune goes off key or, in extreme cases, it becomes dissonant.”

“That’s the only thing such a sound could indicate?” Warwick asked.

“It could be several other things. But Stewart wasn’t off key at all. He wasn’t even making music. All I could hear was a single note, sustained indefinitely, as if the melody of his life had shrunk into a single, constant scream. I knew we couldn’t ignore that. Unfortunately I’ve never heard anything like that before so I can’t guess whether other people will be the same under the influence of the same magic.”

“Well, your actions are commendable although it’d be better if we knew you could repeat it.” Avery steepled his fingers and studied Cassie in the same way senior knights from Avalon would. Like a new variable on the battlefield. “How did you go about breaking Stu’s enchantment?”

“I just sang a tune.” Cassie smiled her most disarming smile, the kind that kept their father wrapped around her finger. “Everyone has a tune they’re supposed to sing. If they lose track of it often the best way to help them is to sing your own song with them until they find their own again.”

Avery’s lips pursed like he’d just eaten something sour. “That seems a bit simplistic.”

“Simple, perhaps, but not easy to do, even if you know what you’re doing.”

“I suppose.” Avery rose and paced along the side of the building. “Well, it is good that Stu is safe and if you’re willing to help free the other two children that were taken with him I and their parents would be very grateful. But I am curious. You said you were here on errantry, Sir Fairchild. May I ask the nature of your quest?”

Brandon laughed. “You’ll find it ridiculous, I’m sure.”

“No more so than anything else in the Columbian West, I’d say.” Warwick gave them an inscrutable look. “So what is it?”

“The Secret of Steel. What else?”

Avery’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Really? I’d heard Stonehenge still searched for that bit of myth from time to time but why come here? The Sanna aren’t known for their metallurgy. The Hispaniola that rule Tetzlan guard the local magic jealously…”

“Technically we’ve been tasked with retrieving some of the Founder’s writings that came over with the first round of Knights that Avalon sent during the Sanna wars. Pellinor’s Journals, The Archives of the du Lac Lineage. But,” Brandon gestured to his sister, “technically it’s her quest. When she came of age she heard the call and the Founders decided to send her here. As far as I know Stonehenge has never sent a stone singer to this place on this quest so I think they were hoping she’d hear something new.”

Avery returned to his spot on the desk, his attitude curious now. “Have you had any luck?”

“We’ve heard a… name?” Cassie put a note of uncertainty in it. “Perhaps a title? Supposedly there’s a man in brown who carries a sword of steel and is called The Strongest Man in the World. Have you heard of him?”

“Yes, the Hodekkian,” Warwick mused. “He knew Jonathan Riker somehow, came to the dedication of his statue. He carried one of the curved swords their people favor at the time. A tachi, I think it’s called? He never drew it, though, so I assumed it was bronze like any other.”

“We’ve heard its a silvery metal that isn’t aluminum,” Brandon said. “It’s not much to go on but it’s a start.”

Avery frowned. “But he’s not here in the Cove. Believe me, I’d know if he was.”

“No, we haven’t heard that,” Cassie put in. “We came because we heard the sheriff’s deputy was also a knight from Morainhenge. We hoped he might know the fate of the henge’s relics. When we arrived we were told the sheriff had no deputy so we thought the man had moved on. Turns out he was just promoted.”

“As you say,” Warwick agreed. “Unfortunately I can’t help you. The Master did empty the Reliquary before Morainhenge fell but he didn’t pass them out to the standing knights. He gave them all to the assistant master and told him to find new, worthy guardians for them. I clearly wasn’t one of the worthies. I’ve heard rumors about Assistant Master Oldfathers in the years since but I’ve never seen him in person.”

Brandon sighed. “Well, don’t feel too put out. We’ve heard variations on that story at least a dozen times in the last year and a half. As near as we can tell only one Morainhenge knight was chosen by one of your relics. Very strange.”

“Oh?” Warwick’s brows shot up again. “Who’s that, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“A knight of the First Circle, very green at the time of the Lakeshire War, apparently.” Brandon drummed his finger, trying to dredge up the right name. “Was it Nat Thorton?”

“No,” Cassie said. “Nat was the one who survived. The one who received it first was Cole Thurmond. Nat was his squire for most of the war. When the assistant master brought Cole the Bedrock Shackles after the war they found both were able to wield them.”

“That’s right,” Brandon remembered it clearly now. “But Nat told us Sir Thurmond died running down the leader of a rogue Sanna warband about three years ago and the relic passed to Nat.”

Avery nodded. “I remember Thurmond and Thorton. They were good men, although not very remarkable from what I remember. I suppose time changes us all.”

“I suppose so.” Brandon got to his feet and reached down to help Cassie up. “Well, we will keep looking. Do you think we can be of help with the other children missing from the town?”

“Perhaps.” Avery studied Brandon for a moment. “Although I’m not sure if you’re quite up for dangerous work just yet. What happened to your leg?”

Brandon hadn’t thought he’d been favoring it that much but the sheriff must have noticed. “I injured it fighting some gold drinkers a few weeks ago. The Hearth Keepers have done their best but its not back to normal yet.” He wiggled his foot back and forth. “It’s useful for day to day work and if things turn bad, well, I cultivate the yew so I think I can compensate for it. I don’t expect a few ensorcelled children to be that dangerous.”

“So Roy Harper didn’t tell you to expect danger?”

Brandon suppressed a sigh. He’d hoped all the talk about errantry and relics might sidetrack the sheriff. Clearly the man knew his work better than that. When they’d first arrived in town Brandon and Cassie had discussed how to answer the sheriff if he asked them whether they knew Harper directly. Both of them had hoped it wouldn’t be necessary, given the circumstances.

“All we knew is that he left a note saying he had personal business in Riker’s Cove,” Cassie said. “He invited us to join him if we had no other leads to follow up.”

Avery tilted his head. “He left you a note? When was this?”

“About a week ago, according to the date,” Braondon said. “We met Mr. Harper in his capacity as a Railway Detective about three months ago. He offered his home in Keegan’s Bluff as a base of operations for our search. Since then we’ve spent much of our time traveling across the West and so has Mr. Harper. We’re rarely at Oakhart Manor at the same time so we leave messages for each other with Mr. and Mrs. Gardener who watch the house when Mr. Harper is away.”

“And he left you a note about Heinrich von Nighburg?”

“No, as I said he mentioned personal business here and that he’d heard there was an old knight from Morainhenge here. I’m not familiar with the man you name.”

Avery’s eyes narrowed. “He’s responsible for kidnapping Stu Strathmore and the other missing children. Do you often coordinate your work with Harper’s?”

Cassie shook her head. “Mr. Harper supports our quest and lets us know when he hears things that might help us but we only coordinate with him when Brandon’s sense of chivalry drives him to meddle, like with those gold drinkers.”

“Yes, that happens.” Brandon managed not to roll his eyes as he said it but it was a near thing.

“How was it that you wound up on the same train as his friend van der Klein?”

“Mr. Harper suggested we travel with him in his note,” Cassie said. “I suspect it was an offer made for our convenience. He tends to be very considerate of our traveling needs, seems to think it’s his duty as a host.”

“That’s commendable of him.” Warwick grunted and folded his arms over his chest. “He didn’t mention having a stone singer as a resource.”

“Of course not,” Brandon snapped. “He doesn’t speak for my sister or I and he wouldn’t presume to.”

Avery sat a little straighter, looking chagrined. “Of course not.”

“Would it changed your decision to have him leave town?” Cassie asked.

“Not really.” Avery took his thistledown candle and removed it from its base, carefully reforming the still soft wax with his fingers as he spoke. “The fact is I don’t trust firespinners to consider the good of the town first. Just having another ally with unusual talents doesn’t change that equation in a meaningful way. The fact that he was in the Regulars doesn’t help.”

“How did you know he was in the Army?” Brandon asked. “I was under the impression it was rare for people who lived this far West.”

“On the contrary! I’d guess old Regulars are more common out here than in the East these days.” Avery shrugged. “Jonathan Riker ran here to escape the war before it started. Many, myself included, came here after to escape its ghosts. But to answer your question, I knew Harper was from the 43rd Infantry because most people who know about firespinners know that. He’s actually rather famous in these parts.”

Cassie got up and took Warwick’s candle off the desk and held it for him as he worked the wax drippings into it. “So you disliked him because you were at odds during the war?”

“Plenty of Lakeshire born firespinners out here, ma’am.” Avery took the candle from her and held it up for inspection. Cassie favored him with another winsome smile. “Though I suppose the old loyalties did play some factor in my decision.”

She nodded in understanding. “And now that you know there is another druid vouching for him, does that change your opinion of him?”

The sheriff gave her a sharp look. “I thought I was the one who looked into minds.”

“That’s you, certainly,” Cassie said gravely. “But I can hear a great deal that people leave unsaid and often that’s what’s most important. So how is it, Sir Warwick? Will you let the two of us, Mr. Harper and his friends help you save these children?”

Warwick stared at his candle for a long time then sighed and set it down on his desk. “Alright, Miss Fairchild. You’ve got a deal.”


A Candle in the Wind – Chapter Four

Previous Chapter

The newest strangers in town had very different priorities from the last group. They never came to the graveyard. That didn’t mean they escaped the patient watch of Jonathan Riker’s statue. On the contrary. After first arriving they went down to the beach where the young man bathed one leg in the ocean. His sister kept him company, occasionally serenading him with snatches of light, wistful song.

Other than that small excursion they didn’t leave the inn for the first day. They were more active the second. The two of them walked up and down the docks, chatting with the captains of small fishing boats and tramp freighters. Money changed hands as if they planned a trip by sea in the near future. And they ended the evening on the beach once more, bathing the man’s leg and pensively watching the setting sun as it sank beneath the horizon, skewered by the Cove’s lighthouse like a giant, burning orange.

The town got very quiet at sundown. Avery found it strange, as habits formed years ago in Palmyra told him the cool evening was the perfect time for candle making. The rhythms of seaside life were very different from those of a druid’s forest stronghold. The morning tide was vital to the people of Riker’s Cove and it came well before sunrise. By sunset most people were long asleep.

As the town’s primary peacekeeper Avery did his best to remain awake until the night was well underway, so as to be on hand in case brigands tried to take advantage of the cover of night. He remained at the jail, his lone thistledown candle burning. With his senses expanded he looked out across the town, listening for the sound of thoughts. There were limits to his range, of course. With only his candle burning he could pick up on thoughts within twenty feet or so of where he sat. But if anyone lit the candles he’d shared with them he would pick up on their mind right away.

Well, with some exceptions. Roy Harper had proven immune to the candle’s power, somehow. Perhaps the hint was in the name of his talent. He hadn’t learned much about druids with the firemind but it stood to reason that such a person would have firey thoughts and that may explain the way the candle reacted to Harper’s mind by flaring up instead of carrying his thoughts. Avery hadn’t worked out a possible solution to the problem yet.

Fortunately Harper’s Sanna friend hadn’t been so impenetrable in his thoughts. Proud Elk had heard something from Harper that convinced him that following Harper could keep their promise to old man Riker one way or another. Avery was expecting the two of them and their friend from the train to turn up again any day now. Probably not by train. Most likely by horse, possibly by boat. Yet so far there was no sign of any of them.

Not for the first time he wished he could find a willing deputy. Sadly there hadn’t been any takers since von Nighburg reminded the town that the law was potentially a very dangerous profession. No one wanted to take the risk of wearing a tin star just to keep the peace.

Such grim thoughts kept him company through dusk. The evening was about to tip over into full night, the waxing moon high overhead just a sliver from fulfillment, when one of his other candles flared to life on the other side of town. Avery scrambled to his feet, snatching up his sword. With his candle holder in his left hand he bolted into the streets. The jail was high on the hill leading out of the Cove and the Strathmore home was almost on the waterfront. Even at a fast walk it took him almost ten minutes to get there.

He covered the last few hundred feet with a growing sense of unease. The closer he got to the house the more the smoke from his candle seemed to thrum with some other magical force. There was a large spell at work and Avery suspected von Nighburg was the source. The emotions of the family coming through the candle’s magic were mixed and the ethics of searching their thoughts directly outside of an active threat were clear. It was a dark thing to do and he wasn’t willing to take that step yet.

Avery did his best to work out how many people were in the Strathmore house before he knocked. He didn’t know the family well. The father was a fisherman and his steady, watchful presence was immediately obvious. The mother was equally apparent. Her concern and drive to nurture those in the house carried clearly through the candle, bright as flame. The Strathmores had three children, though one was currently in the clutches of the black magician that lurked in the lighthouse. Unfortunately, while there was a jumble of youthful excitement in the house, it was too chaotic for Avery to determine how many people were feeling those emotions at the moment.

Most surprising was the addition of not one but two other sets of emotions. One had an air of watchful satisfaction. The other was the source of the mysterious thrumming Avery had felt for the last few minutes. Judging that cautious optimism was the correct approach, the sheriff loosened his sword in its sheath but didn’t draw it. Instead, he knocked on the front door of the house.

Aaron Strathmore answered a few moments later, clearly expecting him as the Strathmore patriach quickly swung the door open and motioned him in. Avery glanced around the main room. Stairs to a loft, small kitchen area underneath, the stove in the opposite corner, doorway to the master bedroom of to the right. A large family table dominated the room and Rachel Strathmore sat there, her oldest child wrapped in her arms. The other two clustered around her, excitedly talking over each other. Standing by the back wall were two strangers with similar faces, a brother and sister at a guess.

Aaron closed the door quickly behind the sheriff. Before going any further into the room he took Strathmore aside and whispered, “Who are those two?”

“Out of towners,” Aaron replied. “The brought Stu back about twenty minutes ago, easy as you please. You wouldn’t think he’d been missing for weeks.”

Avery’s own experience suggested it hadn’t been quite as simple as that. “Did they say where they’re from?”

“Avalon.” Strathmore shrugged helplessly when Avery gave him an incredulous look. “How should I know for sure? They don’t sound like any Columbian I ever met but I’m hardly the expert now am I?

“Okay, I’ll talk to them in a minute. Is Stu all right? Is he acting strange that you’ve noticed?”

“No,” Aaron said, folding his arms. “I’m worried that being a captive so long might have hurt his mind but he seems normal and I didn’t want to worry the missus, see?”

“I understand. I really need to ask him some questions but I can wait ’til the morning if you’d like some more time to let him rest now that he’s back. Just keep in mind that we don’t know what might have happened to him in von Nighburg’s care. Does he remember anything?”

“Not that he’s said.” Strathmore shook his head in a resigned fashion. “Ask you questions now, sheriff. There’s still two missing children and if Stu knows how to help them we’d better find out as soon as possible.”

“Appreciate your cooperation.” Aver stepped over to the table with Aaron, who offered him an empty chair. The sheriff sat while the boy’s mother turned the child to face him. Avery removed his hat and laid it on the table. “Hello, Stu. How are you feeling?”

The child looked up at him with guileless brown eyes. “Hello, Sheriff Warwick. I’m feelin’ pretty fit, I guess, except Momma says I’ve been gone for six weeks and I don’t remember any of it.”

“Sounds like you’re doing alright, son.” Warwick smiled in spite of the serious situation. The energy and excitement in the boy’s voice felt infectious and had none of the sickly magical overtones of enchanted feelings. But Avery’s good mood quickly passed. “Stu, did you know that there are children besides you missing from town?”

Stu shook his head and gave his mother a questioning look. She nodded. “It’s true, Stewart. If you can think of anything that will let the sheriff help them it could be very important.”

Stu screwed up his face in a caricature of concentration. Then he slumped in dejection. “Sorry, sheriff, I really can’t remember anything.”

With a nudge Avery put his candle directly between them. “If I have you permission, Aaron, I might be able to help him remember.”

The Strathmore patriarch glanced at the candle then back at the sheriff. “By magic?”

“Thoughts and memories are my specialty. The candle generally facilitats communication but with a little time and work I can delve into parts of his mind he normally doesn’t recognize.” Avery got up and crossed to the window then took the candle there back to the table with him. “We might be able to dredge up something that way.”

“Is it dangerous?”

“Not dangerous, Mrs. Strathmore, but it could certainly be called invasive. Like the barber checking your teeth for cavities.” Avery sat down with the second candle just in front of him. “Shall I?”

“There’s other children out there missing,” Aaron said. “We gotta help as we can.”

“If it’s not dangerous I think a little discomfort couldn’t hurt,” his wife added.

Avery stared at Stu across the candle flames. “What about it, Stu?”

The boy gave his parents a confused look. “But-”

“I heard them, son, and if they’d said no then that would’ve been the end of it. But you must agree as well.” Avery cut the beginning of his mother’s objection off with a look. “Listen well, Stewart Strathmore, for today you cannot be a boy. Today you must be a man. Only a man can take responsibility in a matter such as this.”

His mother overcame Avery’s glare and her objection burst out. “That’s not fair!”

“It was unfair when he was taken from you for six weeks, it was unfair when his memories were taken from him and it was unfair when the burden of being the only lifeline for others was placed on him.” Avery folded his arms across his chest and glared at the boy’s parents. “I won’t add to the unfairness by taking his decision from him.”

“I’m not scared!” Stu exclaimed.

“Good.” Avery gestured at the candles. “Then look at the flame and see the magic there. Have the courage to ask yourself whether you are prepared to grapple with it. Don’t be afraid that you’ll be a coward if you say no.”

Stu stared at the candle for a long moment his expression wavering from awed to nervous to solemn. “What will happen when you do the magic?”

“We’ll look into each other’s thoughts and memories at least as far as we’re able. My mind is very well trained so you probably won’t see much beyond me working the magic. However I’ll be able to see almost everything you’re thinking.” Avery gestured around the room. “Anything you’re thinking about your family, your favorite memories, any grudges between you and your brother and sister. Of course I’ll be looking for you memories from the last six weeks. However there will be many things besides that which I learn in the process because that’s how the magic works.”

Stu looked at him for a long moment then asked, “You won’t tell anyone? Promise?”

Avery considered how to best assure him of that then raised his right hand. “I am Avery Warwick, Knight of the Third Circle, and I serve at the pleasure of Arthur, First and Forever King of Avalon. In rain and sunshine I walk among the stone circle and steward its legacy for the coming generations and I swear on the Stones of Morainhenge all I learn from you will remain secret, save what is needed to defend the innocent.”

Avery felt the magic of the oath catch at him. It had been almost a decade since he’d sworn by the Circle and it felt different to him now. Perhaps the destruction of Morainhenge had changed the nature of his oaths. Perhaps the lack of another Knight to witness and solemnize the oath weakened it. Perhaps he was no longer worthy of his oaths. Regardless, he hoped it would be enough to convince the boy.

“I am Bradon Fairchild.” Avery nearly jumped out of his seat – he’d forgotten the two strangers in the room. The man had stepped away from the wall and also raised his right hand. “Knight of the Second Circle, servant of the Phoenixborn, sworn to defend his Circle and his Realm. I swear by the dolmen of Stonehenge, if this man forswears his pledge and breaks that circle then I shall teach him the error of his ways.”

The magic roared to full strength. Contrary to his musings of a moment ago, Avery felt the binding nature of the oath fall on him stronger than he’d ever felt it before. The magic of the oath settled into place, a gleaming ring formed around his right wrist and Brandon’s. Then the magic settled in place and the ring faded from view.

“There you have it,” the stranger said. “The strongest promise we can offer.”

Stu watched the proceedings in open mouthed wonder. Once the oath was done he snapped to attention. “Okay. Then I wanna do the magic.”

Avery had to shake off his own moment of nostalgia after experiencing that familiar ritual for the first time in ages. He nudged the candles into position and said, “Then look here. Let yourself relax and think about a recent memory. What was it like when you came home tonight? Think about that.”

The sheriff let his eyes go unfocused and sharpened his attention to the candle. He felt the boy’s memories radiating towards him on the waves of heat from the flame. Confusion and surprise at his parents teary delight when he walked in the door. Then, earlier, meeting a pretty lady singing on the street. Earlier still, the Riker girl taking him to meet a strange man.

Tall, dressed in a tunic that looked like it came from two hundred years prior and wearing a richly embroidered red cloak. He had a salt and pepper beard and flinty cold eyes. In his right hand was a staff with a gold banded crystal at the top. The staff was clad in a strange, silvery metal. Based on the description on the wanted poster, Avery guessed this was Heinrich von Nighburg.

Avery felt a pang of confusion. He moved forward in Stu’s memories and returned to the moment the boy met the songstress. Then Avery worked backwards with greater care. Yet no matter how careful he was he found the same fragments of memory and nothing else. It was like the whole time he’d been missing Stu Strathmore had been asleep and formed no memories at all.

A Candle in the Wind – Chapter Three

Previous Chapter

The sheriff led the two strangers out of town, the shorter of the two still protesting. “I know you don’t want our help, Warwick,” he was saying. “But van der Klein is your last, best hope to sort things out before it goes sour. The three of us are the only ones coming to help you. It’s not like the Knights of Stonehenge are going to show up unbidden.”

“That’s fine, Harper,” Warwick replied in a more normal tone. “You just tell your friend there to get back on the train and light out to other parts.”

“I’ll be back if we learn anything about that lighthouse of yours,” Harper replied.

“Just send a note.”

The sheriff watched as the two men approached a third, a tall but thin fellow with a very pale face and hair. They argued for several moments but by that point they were far enough away that their voices didn’t carry to the statue. Neither sheriff nor the three he watched paid any attention to the other two passengers who got off the train.

But Jonathan Riker’s statue noticed. They were young, a man and a woman. They had very similar faces and blonde, curling hair and they moved with determination and purpose, though the man favored his right leg. As they passed the first buildings in town the man paused just long enough to look back and watched Harper and his friends climb on the train. Then they vanished into the heart of the Cove.

Johan van der Klein fiddled with the sides of the small black box that sat between him and his old friend. Roy was gnawing on a roast chicken leg while Proud Elk explained why the sheriff of Riker’s Cove threw them out of town. Every so often Harper would add a bit of context or fill in a detail. Johan thought the most interesting bit was the fact that Sheriff Warwick was a master of candles of revealing. Even among the druids such people were rare.

“Did you ever work out what the first candle he burned was?” Johan asked when the story was done.

“I was assuming it was a single instance of the candles he used in his office,” Roy said.

“Did he light it with the others when he showed you the house?”

Roy thought about it for several seconds. “No, now that you mention it I don’t believe he did. Any reason he wouldn’t? The others were a lot more burned down than the one he greeted me with.”

“Harmon’s Sons don’t have very many records of encounters with druidic magic techniques,” Johan said, pulling one side of his box so it slid an inch out along the grooves it sat in. The dull gleam of a mirror inside it caught the light from the afternoon sun. “Candles in particular are a tricky business to work out. Most druids give form to magic using plants as their medium of choice. They awaken trees that are too small to have minds of their own, they exist symbiotically with plants like the yew or ivy, they burn incense to release power from herbs and the like. Very few mesh directly with magic like you, Roy.”

Roy tossed his chicken bones down on his plate and looked warily around the hotel restaurant they sat in. They weren’t the only guests there but few seemed interested approaching the table where the three sat. There was a ring of empty tables all around them, as if Roy’s hostile attitude and reputation as a bounty hunter and monster killer repelled the peaceful people of Loewenburg. Satisfied he wouldn’t be overheard, Roy asked, “So what about the candles? Do you have a guess as to what they do?”

“Hard to say.” Johan carefully shifted the sides of the lightbox so the mirrors caught the light and focused it so it created the illusion of a flickering flame. “Druidic incenses do many different things and candles are similar in their approach. A lot of powerful magic herbs are toxic on some level and druids build up a resistance to them during their training. However the toxins in some herbs are so concentrated that the dose in normal incense is still too high enough to kill. Other herbs release magic so powerful it’s impossible to control except in the smallest amounts. So druids weave a few threads from the plants into candle wicks. That produces smaller, more manageable doses of magic – or toxins – that make the plants a usable lens to shape the magic.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that,” Roy said. “I knew a Harwick once. He could use a candle to turn to smoke and pass through gaps in walls and the like.”

“That’s not one I’ve heard of before.” Johan continued to tweak the shape of the light from his box to create more and more illusory candles. “Sadly, it doesn’t help us figure out what Warwick’s candles might do. The reasons druids chose candles as a medium for magic are secondary to the actual function of the magic they are creating. The candle is just a way to regulate it safely. There are potentially as many different kinds of magic candles as there are fibrous herbs to put in their wicks. If it wasn’t one of his candles of revealing I can’t guess what it is from what you’ve told me.”

Roy shook his head. “Those revealing candles work very fast and very obviously. Whatever that other candle did it was much more subtle.”

“Were the flames of the revealing candles silent like the one he brought to your first meeting?”

“Couldn’t tell.” Roy sketched the bars of a prison cell with his hands. “Iron in the bars, remember? That tends to dampen out the voices from an open flame unless the fire in question is much larger than the intervening iron. That’s one reason I carried an iron weapon for years. Helped me sleep with a campfire nearby.”

“Well, given the kinds of magic they tended to put in candles we can assume it’s a very powerful working we’ll have to be cautious of.”

Proud Elk studied the flame illusion intently. “It has been many years since I have seen such craft, Silver Glass. It seems much more impressive than a bit of candle wax.”

“Well, the First Son of Harmon was a true genius. But whether he was an equal to the First and Forever King of Avalon is very much an open question and one we’ll likely never see answered. What is certain is they created very different kinds of workings. The magic of light is much more ephemeral than that of the great, growing things of the earth.” Johan collapsed the lightbox down to its base form, closing up the many mirrors and leaving only the black lacquered exterior showing. “I would have liked to see this lighthouse. Changing the bend of space is a very difficult thing to achieve.”

“Ever seen anything like that before?” Roy asked.

“Problem is, like a druid’s candle, it could be any number of things,” Johan mused. “Illusion, actual bending of space or just creating a link between the top of the tower and distant place. But there’s no way to narrow it down without testing things.”

“Does it matter?” Proud Elk asked. “I did not see much of that man’s town but I did notice that every house and shop with a window had a candle behind the glass. Based on what you’ve said I do not think this can be coincidence.”

Roy nodded. “I saw them at the inn, too. I suspect our good Sheriff Warwick passed them out after von Nighburg came to town. Usually his lot are stingier with magic than that.”

“What about your friends?”

Proud Elk gave Johan a questioning look. “I thought all of us who signed the Pact were accounted for.”

“We are. But I met two travelers from Avalon on the train and learned they were coming to meet Roy as well.” Johan ran a finger along the edge of this lightbox. “They got off at the Cove but the sheriff clearly wasn’t expecting them. The girl seemed to know what was going on somehow.”

“Very sharp ears on that one,” Roy said. From the faint smile he had when he said it, Johan guessed that was all the explanation they were going to get. He’d been tight lipped even as a kid in the Regulars. “Her brother is a fully fledged Knight of the Stone Circle, straight from Stonehenge itself. They’ll stay ahead of Warwick pretty easily. Hopefully they can figure out a few things for us before we get back there.”

“You’ve got a lot of faith in those two,” Johan said. “I suppose it’s yours to give.”

“I was kind of winging it, to be fair, but we got as good an outcome as any of us could hope for,” Roy said. “I was thinking we’d give them a day to look around and then sneak back up on the Cove and whistle for the Fairchilds.”

“A serviceable plan given the circumstances,” Proud Elk said. “There is one question – no, two, that it leaves unanswered.”

Roy quirked an eyebrow and said, “What’s bothering you, Proud Elk?”

“First, we do not know why Heinrich von Nighburg chose this lighthouse building in that man’s village.” The Sanna man ticked off the possibilities on his fingers. “Is it a place of power? Is it the tides and ocean? Was it simply a convenient thing he found?”

“You’re an expert at dousing and the other river magics of the Sanna,” Johan said. “Do you have an opinion?”

“Like you, I would have to go there and examine it to make any kind of guess. That brings me to the second issue. What will we do if breaching the lighthouse requires some kind of talisman or special ritual that we do not know? The sheriff was unable to divine a way in. If we try and fail we will have revealed ourselves to von Nighburg and the sheriff.”

“A moment, gentleman.” Johan turned and motioned for one of the hotel’s waiters.

The man hurried over, smoothing the front of his suit. “Can I help you, sir?”

“Does the hotel have an almanac available?”

“Of course, sir. Would you like to see it?”

“Please.” Johan ignored his friend’s questioning looks.

It took only a moment for the waiter to return with a thick book in hand. He passed it to Johan, who quickly began flipping through it. “Is there anything else?”

“This will only take a moment.” Johan found the entry he wanted and skimmed over it, making a note of the timing of the situation, then handed it back to the waiter. “Thank you, that will be all.”

Once they were alone again he continued, saying, “We can solve the second issue by waiting another day to return to the cove.”

“Why’s that?” Roy asked.

“Low Noon is in two days. It’s a time of portent when the barriers between what’s seen and unseen are very thin and many forms of magic become more powerful. I believe we can create a new entrance to the unseen portion of the lighthouse – or perhaps drag it into our world – with the added power of the lunar eclipse on our side.”

Proud Elk frowned. “I have not heard of this Low Noon before. Lunar means the moon, but the what is eclipse? Why do you name it like you do the highest moment of the day?”

“Is that important?” Johan asked.

“It is a time of portent,” Proud Elk said in disapproval. “Shouldn’t the name have portent as well?”

“A lunar eclipse is when the moon is overshadowed by the earth,” Roy answered. “I believe the Sanna call it inil’anawak? The moon is full then turns dark for several hours.”

The Sanna man nodded. “I suspected as much but I also wish to understand why you’ve chosen this name.”

“Well, as I understand it the name came about because a lunar eclipse is the opposite of High Noon. Night versus day, happening rarely instead of daily, moon and sun.” Roy shrugged. “I don’t know the exact origin of the phrase. You know we’re not as particular about these things in Columbia as you folks are, Proud Elk.”

“On the contrary, Bright Coals, even in this I feel there is much to learn about your people. Now, I have a third question.” He turned to Johan and said, “Given the nature of this time won’t that make your magics difficult to work, Silver Glass? I recall you needed light to work them.”

“Not to worry. It’s been eight years since we went down to Tyson’s Run. I’ve picked up a trick or two that let me work my arts even if there’s no light at all.”

“Then we’ll leave in two days.” Roy got up, straightening the front of his vest with a sharp tug. “Until then we’ll make preparations as needed. I’ll arrange for a boat or skiff, I don’t think the sheriff will expect us by sea. Meet here this evening to check in.”

“Who will pilot the boat?” Johan asked.

“I have stood at the rear of many a canoe,” Proud Elk assured him. “I may need to spend some time outdoors tonight. Look for me tomorrow evening.”

“We may need you for that Proud Elk, although I’m going to be looking for something very specific. I’ve used them before working with Books. It’ll depend on what’s available out here, though, so if I can’t find it we may need your expertise after all. I’ll let you know for sure when you get back.” Roy stood up and gave them a sharp nod. “Get to it boys.”

Johan picked up his lightbox and got to his feet. A house outside of the world as they knew it would be a real challenge. The First Son of Harmon created the lightbox as a versatile and easily transported tool for the working of his arts. But a lot of sacrifices were made to achieve that versatility and portability. For a challenge like von Nighburg he was going to need more mirrors.

A Candle in the Wind – Chapter Two

Previous Chapter

Most visitors to Riker’s Cove came by skytrain, validating Jonathan’s long push to build a formal station for them in town. However Riker himself and many of the first settlers arrived by boat. Indeed, the docks still accepted many newcomers to town in the present day. While popular, these large forms of transport were didn’t always fit the needs or wants of a man traveling alone. The trains in particular weren’t welcome in lands controlled by the League of the Sanna, either.

So it was no surprise that the Sanna man who came to Riker’s Cove the day after Roy Harper arrived on horseback, rather than by train. He rode in about late morning, old buckskin pants and worn linen shirt hidden under a long, brightly beaded coat. He gave the graveyard a wide berth. Jonathan Riker’s statue was not slighted by this as the customs of the Sanna and the Columbians were very different in regards to death. As they were in many ways.

However, when searching for someone the basics are much the same from one culture to another. So the stranger went to the hotel first. Then he crisscossed the public square a few times, visiting the pub, the smithy and the general store. Finally he went to the jail. But Sheriff Warwick was out at the moment so he sat down on the doorstep and waited.

Avery didn’t know any Sanna men, so when one turned up outside the jail he was more than a litle surprised. The dark skinned man regarded him with impassive stoicism as he approached. Avery returned the sentiment. Before the Lakeshire War druids primarily drilled with the expectation that they would be called up to fight the Sanna when hostilities broke out between their nations again.

Ultimately that never happened but that didn’t mean there was no low level violence between the Sanna and the Columbians. Out in the west it was actually pretty common. But it was rare for them to come so far south.

Avery tipped the brim of his hat to the stranger. “G’morning. Can I help you?”

“Good morning.” The Sanna man stood with an effortless grace and spoke with the precise diction his people were famous for. “You are the sheriff of this town?”

“That’s right. I’m Avery Warwick, and you are?”

“You may call me Proud Elk.”

That was an awkward name and no mistake. Avery was tempted to ask how he’d say that in Proud Elk’s native tongue but he knew some Sanna tribes really hated revealing things like that. “Okay, Proud Elk, what brings you to my jail.”

“I came to this town to meet Bright Coals, the man you call Roy Harper.” Proud Elk tilted his head and pursed his lips oddly, seeming to indicate the jailhouse. “I am told he is here.”

Avery reassessed the Sanna man. He’d never heard of their people sending out firespinners or bounty hunters but there was a first time for everything. Problem was, he wasn’t sure how Proud Elk would react if placed under arrest. “Well you were told correctly. You’ll have to leave any weapons outside so as to ensure there’s no jailbreaks.”

Proud Elk nodded and extracted a whip club from his jacket. It was a heavy stick of hexwood with an equally heavy sulfurite crystal embedded at one end and a long, fifteen foot vine extending from the other. Sanna braves were supposed to be deadly with them. Avery took the weapon and found it to be very unwieldy in the hand. “You will allow me to speak to him now?”

“Sure. Come on in.” Avery unlocked the door and ushered Proud Elk into the jail.

“What crime did Bright Coals commit that you were forced to jail him? I have heard he’s quite scrupulous.”

“I am.” Roy got up from the bench where he’d been sitting and approached the bars of his cell. “Hello, Proud Elk, good to see you. Did you bring Many Herons with you?”

“The Elder was recently injured and is unable to travel. Your Thaddeus Heller now serves as mayor of a town and his obligations prevent his travel right now. They have had a difficult time.” Proud Elk looked uncomfortable crossing over to the empty cell, conspicuously avoiding meeting Harper’s eyes.

“I know Sam Jenkins is dead,” Harper mused, drumming his fingers on the bars. For some reason that was enough for Proud Elk to relax. “Add in you and me and that’s five accounted for.”

“Many Herons sent a message to Lost Crow but he returned to the north and we do not know where he lives now. It may take weeks to reach him.” Proud Elk finally met Roy’s gaze. “That’s six. Do you have any news of the other two?”

“Ty Hutch went prospecting from what I heard. It may take even longer to reach him than it does Lost Crow and we have semaphore towers to work with.” Roy sat back down on his bench. “Van der Klein is on his way. Not the greatest response we could hope for. Three out of eight.”

“No one thought only eight would live, much less that they would be such as us.” Proud Elk frowned his disapproval. “So why are you here in jail, Bright Coals? We gave our word to that man that we should defend his family and home yet you are unable to do so. Such a mistake is unlike you.”

Avery cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to interrupt, Proud Elk, but is it possible you’re also here to hunt down Heinrich von Nighburg?”

“Yes. As a brave of the Sanna I must uphold the promises we made to the founder of this town.”

He said it with the kind of grave certainty that suggested he thought everyone present understood him. Most Sanna spoke that way. In fairness, the Sanna prided themselves on learning languages and clearly speaking them. From the amused expression on Harper’s face he knew Avery was lost. He didn’t leave the sheriff in the dark long.

“Did you ever meet Jonathan Riker, Sheriff Warwick?” Harper asked.

“No, I came here about six years ago. He was dead and buried by that point.”

“You ever ask how he died?”

“I heard he went off to sort out some kind of problem up north before it got to the Cove but he never came back.” Avery frowned. “I always got the impression the townsfolk didn’t approve of him doing that so I never pushed to hard on the topic.”

“Yeah, I heard that, too.” Harper gave Proud Elk a look but it seemed to go right past the Sanna man. “Well, have you ever heard of the Summer of Snow?”

“Couldn’t hear about anything else back when I was coming out this way.” Avery raised his eyebrows. “Why? Is that the trouble he went to deal with?”

“One and the same.”

“Wait.” Avery massaged his forehead, feeling a headache coming on. “Why wouldn’t people want him doing that? The Summer of Snow wiped out crops all over the West, nearly caused a famine over thirty counties. Stopping that was heroism on par with Arthur and the Founders. Why not talk about it?”

“Because he died doing it and it was his connections that brought half the ships here each year,” Roy said. “At least, that’s what I heard at the dedication ceremony for his statue.”

“Okay, I can somewhat understand that,” Avery conceded. “So historical facts aside, what does this have to do with you two?”

“When the snow was at its worst, sixty men from the northern Sanna tribes and the Western Columbian counties gathered in Leondale,” Proud Elk said. “We agreed that the cold must be broken, no matter the cost. If it remained it would cost us family and home and ultimately our lives.”

“But some folks weren’t keen on chasing down hunger incarnate,” Roy added. “If they died they couldn’t do much for hearth and home later, after all. So we made a pact. Anyone who survived would take on the obligations of those who died. We didn’t expect the numbers would be so lopsided at the time.”

“Nine all told, wasn’t it?” Avery rummaged through his memories and came up with half a verse of half forgotten song. “Sixty one men went down to Tyson’s Run and nine emerged when battle was done.”

Harper visibly flinched but Proud Elk didn’t seem to notice. “Not entirely correct,” the Sanna man said. “As I said, there were sixty of us in Leondale, the last man was someone we met at the sawmill by the river.”

“This is important because?”

“That latecomer was one of us who survived,” Harper said. “But he wasn’t a part of the Leondale Pact.”

Avery quirked an eyebrow. “You didn’t invite him, then?”

“I didn’t.” Harper shot Proud Elk a sideways look. “Did you?”

“The Sanna have learned it is better not to request help from him.” Proud Elk shrugged. “I don’t expect him, either way. Chipped Ax spoke as if he had contract with him recently.”

“No wonder he didn’t come,” Roy muttered. “Old man Heller must really be in a bad way if he cut another deal with him.”

“So that’s all very interesting,” Avery said. “But it’s not relevant to my main point. Proud Elk, I’ve arrested Mr. Harper because I don’t want him or anyone else tinkering with Heinrich von Nighburg. He’s a very dangerous man and the threat to the people of this town if you go and fight him, then lose, is very real. You’re not Columbian, so I’d prefer not to arrest you, too. But I will if I have to.”

Proud Elk scowled. “The pledge to that man is a matter of the Sanna’s word, not Columbian law, Sheriff Warwick.”

“Well we both know Sanna words can be pretty flexible. Ever heard of the Diamondback River massacre?”

Roy hurried to interrupt before Proud Elk could let loose the indignant retort building behind his stormy eyes. “Sheriff, do you really think you can keep things going like this?”

“What do you mean?”

“Black magic isn’t a spell or a crime, it’s a way of life. Once you start killing for power its hard to stop.” Harper braced both feet on the floor and leaned forward until his nose almost touched the bars. “Von Nighburg is going to kill again.”

“Mr. Harper, that’s a remarkably astute observation. My concern isn’t maintaining the status quo indefinitely. I just need to stay the course until I can find a way into that coalstoking lighthouse of his. Since you didn’t even know it existed when you got to town I presume you didn’t come with a solution in hand.” Avery gestured at the pile of loose paper Harper had squirreled in the corner of his cell. “Unless you’ve worked it out over the last day?”

Harper absently ran a thumb over the spine of the book that sat on top of his messy scribbling. “I’m afraid not. However, Johan van der Klein is a Son of Harmon, one of the deepest theoretical magic traditions on the continent. He may be able to tell us something when he arrives.”

“He coming on that L&K train this afternoon?”

Avery’s question was rewarded with a chagrined look from Harper. “Yeah, I suppose he is.”

“Well the three of you can get back on it and leave, thank you very much.” Avery sat down at his desk and picked up his candle holder. “I respect your dedication to an old promise. Most men wouldn’t go so far for someone who died six months ago, let alone eight years. But I have access to many sharp magical minds from the old days. If you want to protect Riker’s home and family you’re much better off leaving this in my hands. ”

Proud Elk stirred. “Our oath-”

“One of von Nighburg’s hostages is Jennifer Riker, Jonathan’s granddaughter. Please. I’m begging you, leave this in the hands of someone who knows the town and who they’ll trust.”

For a moment the Sanna man looked crestfallen. Then he rallied, turning stubborn and saying, “The word of the Sanna is not-”

“Sheriff,” Harper interrupted. “May I have a moment alone with Proud Elk?”

Avery nodded and got to his feet. As he walked out of the jail he lit his candle and sat down on the doorstep. He’d give them all the time they needed so long as they finally agreed to leave in the end. In the mean time he trimmed up his candle, lit it and waited.

A Candle in the Wind – Prologue

Sometimes the best stuff you come up with is a surprise. The adventures of Roy Harper, Firespinner, is just one such example in my own body of work. Roy wasn’t intended as a major character he was just someone I thought up when plotting out an entirely different series. I spent a lot of time thinking about him as I organized that story and inevitably writing about Roy as well. Ideas for stories about a roving mercenary, armed with magic and the chip on his shoulder, just kept occurring to me, far outstripping the initial idea I had for a tin star sheriff with a magic sword.

I often pitch the basic concept of Roy Harper’s adventures as “Have Spell, Will Travel.” To me, his story has always been much more complicated than that, deeply tied to ideas I have developed about chivalry and its importance to understanding the modern age. Such philosophical concepts are interesting to discuss among friends but rarely get a lot of attention from strangers. Why is that? Well, mostly because a philosophy doesn’t count for squat until we begin to live it out.

Stories are about living things out. If you really want to explore ideas about philosophy, morality or politics you’ll get much further, and interest far more people, if you present those ideas through stories and not just through idealized stories about how your philosophy will play out under ideal circumstances but stories where those ideas are challenged in the most extreme fashion. Roy is a man who tried to live out a very important part of his philosophy – his patriotism. He went and he fought in a war and what he saw in that war challenged him greatly. He’s still struggling against those challenges.

If you’ve read Roy’s pervious stories you know that his past has played a big part in how he looks at situations and this one is no exception. There will be talk about the virtues of chivalry in Roy’s world. But for the most part this story is culmination. We’ve seen Roy in every aspect of his life – honoring his connections from the past, dealing with trouble as he finds it and actively hunting down evil throughout the West. In this story he’ll do all three and deal with them in ways only he could.

This story was a surprise to me. It occurred to me during a brainstorming session and quickly jumped ahead of several other Roy Harper stories I was developing. It’s the perfect capstone to introducing the character. It’s exciting, it’s fun and it lets Roy do what he does best – hit far above his weight class because he sees through to the truth of the matter. I’m very delighted to present it to you, starting today.

But before we get started I do have one thing to bring to your attention. While I always intend to put all my fiction published on the Internet on this blog this will no longer be the long term home for my fiction. All chapters of A Candle in the Wind will be available here while the story is being published and for six weeks after the story wraps up. Then all chapters of that story, as well as all Roy Harper stories previously published here, will be removed and only available through the archive of my newly established Substack. Reading the archive will require a paid subscription.

While I believe the Internet is a fantastic way to attract an audience the fact is if I want to make a living at this, and I do, then sooner or later I have to sweettalk someone into paying for the stories I write. It’s my hope that a Substack that allows me to paywall all my older work while still offering my current projects for free will be a good way to do this. Don’t worry, this blog won’t be going anywhere. All of the content that has appeared here in the past will continue to appear here. I don’t plan to move anything outside of the Roy Harper archives to Substack any time soon and before I move other fiction there in the future I plan to give at least two months notice. My generalized posts on writing, philosophy and the like will continue to appear here and will never be paywalled.

If you’re interested in supporting me on Substack you can find me there by following this link:


However if you chose not to join as a paid subscriber I fully understand. If you’re reading this here you’re some of my oldest and most faithful readers and I have always appreciated you for just reading. I hope you’ll stick with me through this latest installment. Now, after all that housekeeping, we bring you to the prologue of Roy’s latest outing. Thanks as always, and enjoy the show!

The sandstone statue of Jonathan Riker was quite new in monumental terms. The citizens of Riker’s Cove commissioned it the year after he was killed fighting Wendigoes during the Summer of Snow. They collected the money and hired a somewhat famous sculptor from the capitol in Hancock. The artisan was given a painting of the town’s founder that depicted him dressed in his sailor’s pea coat, carrying his ship’s log and sextant and then left to his work. Two years later it was unloaded from the skytrain and put in place overlooking the town graveyard after the rainy season.

Due to the problems of tide and storm surge the graveyard sat on top of a grassy bluff that shadowed the northern side of the cove. Now Riker’s likeness looked down from the highest point, keeping vigil over both the family crypt and the town that bore his name.

At the moment said crypt was visited by a lone man. He was a head shorter than the norm and dressed in a simple but well tailored brown suit with a red waistcoat. A crisp, new derby hat was currently held over his heart as he contemplated the grave. He wore a sword belt with a long, wickedly bladed falcata strapped to his side. The beginnings of crows feet wrinkled the corners of his eyes and light brown hair swept across his skull in short, neat lines.

The man came to town on the evening sky train. He hadn’t been impressed with the bare field where the weekly train landed. The absence of platform and station was something old Riker had always intended to remedy but never gotten to so the statue was not offended on the town’s behalf. It silently watched as the stranger made his way into town, stopped at the only inn for a few minutes and finally made his way back out of town and up the bluff to the graveyard. He’d stopped at Jonathan’s crypt for five minutes or so. Then, having lingered as long as was appropriate for an acquaintance rather than an old friend, he put his hat back on and was turning to leave when the second man entered the graveyard.

He wore a battered slouch hat over wavy blonde hair, a long leather duster and denim pants and shirt. A tin disk with a five pointed star engraved on it was pinned to his coat. An archaic straight bladed sword with a simple crossguard was strapped to his side and he carried a candle in a flat, silver holder by a ring shaped handle.

The graveyard wasn’t large and the stranger spotted the sheriff right away. He paused, hand still on the brim of his hat, looking a bit surprised. That was a fitting reaction. The statue had never seen the town’s current sheriff visit the graveyard before. Then again, he’d only moved to town some two years ago and it was possible he didn’t know any of the town’s deceased.

The stranger finally lowered his hand to his side and moved to meet the sheriff in front of the crypt. The sheriff looked him up and down then said, “Are you Roy Harper?”

“That’s me. You seem to have the advantage on me.”

“Avery Warwick,” the blond man said, “and I’m the sheriff of Riker’s Cove. Can I ask what brings a professional mercenary to my town?”

The candle in the sheriff’s hand suddenly popped, sputtered and coughed then burned normally again. Both men stared at it in surprise. Once it was clear the candle was back to normal Roy said, “My business is actually related to yours, sheriff. I’ve learned that a wanted man is laying low here in Riker’s Cove and I’ve come to take the matter in hand.”

“You’re here for a bounty, then?”

“I’m here because I made a promise to an old friend. Bringing in a wanted man just so happens to be a part of that.” Roy made an indifferent gesture. “I don’t have to collect the bounty myself, although I won’t complain if I do get it.”

“I see.” Avery gestured back to town. “Would you mind moving this discussion into someplace more private? If you’re after a fugitive then you don’t want to tip your hand.”

As the two men moved back through the graveyard their voices grew distant. “Can you tell me who this fugitive is?” Avery asked as they went.

“Heinrich,” Roy answered. “Heinrich von Nighburg.”

Then they were out of earshot and the statue was alone again, keeping silent vigil over the Cove once more.

A Eulogy for Morgan Hale

I was wrong! There is one last Roy Harper short left I’d forgotten about. This was inspired by another story I was reading that had what I felt was a very simplistic, naïve approach to the idea of justice. I wanted to see it interrogated a little bit so I wound up writing this story, which I now share with you. Hope you enjoy!

The Heathfire’s central flame burned bright and cheerful, tended by the careful ministrations of attentive Hearth Keepers. The young women alternated between keeping the hearth burning and helping the Storm’s Watch construct a bier for the late Morgan Hale. Hale’s funeral had been ongoing for the last hour, a rolling series of songs, stories and moments of quiet reflection.

Since his arrival in the town of Granite Valley six years ago, Morgan had become a local fixture. He was always on hand to raise a barn or birth a calf. When he’d first appeared in the company of the comely widow Jenny Templeton many had assumed some kind of attraction between them even though he was nearly twenty years her senior. These suspicions never proved true, although they persisted for years, until Jenny passed from consumption.

Morgan’s subsequent support of her son until the age of majority cemented the town’s good opinion of him. So it was no surprise that most of the bier was built by the townspeople, placing each stick of kindling after they shared their story of the deceased as tradition demanded. As of yet, no one had removed wood in a sign of disapproval. However, even now the stack of fuel was poor match to the task of cremating a body. Few, indeed, are the men of such noble character that such a task could be accomplished though the goodwill of their community alone.

So the servants of the Mated Pair labored to fill in the gaps as the service wound down. Dusk was falling and soon Morgan would need to burn his path into the night. However as the first long shadows of the sunset touched the Hearth’s building a stranger slipped into the building.

He went unnoticed by most of the mourners at first. In truth this was because he did not look very remarkable. He was on the short side, although his calloused hands and broad shoulders spoke of strength enough for most things. His dark blue suit was appropriate for the occasion. Only the embroidery on his bright yellow vest, hinting that he was a man of means, spoke of anything out of the ordinary.

When Samuel Templeton caught sight of the stranger his outburst shocked the crowd, finally drawing attention to the interloper among them. The new arrival ignored the young man. Instead he approached the bier, also ignoring the piece of kindling one of the Hearth Keepers offered him, and took a stick from the pile. Then he walked to the Hearth.

The crowd watched him in total silence. Doubtless they expected him to throw the kindling onto the main Hearth, a common sign of disapproval for the deceased at this kind of memorial. But the stranger didn’t do this either.

Instead he turned his back to the Hearth and sat down on its edge, the roaring light of the flames casting him in ominous shadow. If the heat of the Hearthfire bothered him he gave no sign. The stranger rested his stick of kindling across his knees and began to speak.

“My name is Roy Harper and my profession is violence.” He removed a sheaf of papers from the inner pocket of his jacket. “I first heard of Morgan Hale after the Carlyle Stage Coach robbery nearly seven years ago when he and the Carlyle brothers killed three guards, a man and his daughter, all in an attempt to steal a strongbox of silver marks on route to the Farnsworth bank in Rapids City.”

The end of Harper’s announcement was lost in an uproar from the townsfolk. Confusion and outrage warred with each other in the crowd’s emotions. Harper waited for them to quiet. While he did he unfolded his papers and pulled out a worn, tattered and dirty page.

It was a wanted poster for Morgan Hale, almost seven years old, issued in due course by the Mayor of Rapids City and witnessed by the Storm’s Watch.

Harper held it up and the last few professing how impossible or mistaken his accusations must be fell silent. He put the other papers away and laid the poster on top of the kindling in his lap. “Three men hit the Farnsworth stage coach, then they split up. The older Carlyle lit out for Sanna territory. It’d take a man with connections among their leaders and a reputation for fairness to catch up to him. Carlyle the Younger went south across the border to Tetzlan. The man to catch him couldn’t fear the magic in stone or blood. By the time I caught up with Hale, six months had passed since the robbery.”

“What?” Terry Schmidt the blacksmith was a large man with graying hair, a frequent partner of Morgan in booze and business. “Six months? Morgan would’ve been here in Granite Valley by then.”

If the question bothered Harper he didn’t show it. Call and response was a part of most rituals at the Hearth, after all, and memorials for the departed were no exception. “So he was,” Harper said, “so he was. In fact, he was mending a fence for the Templetons when I found him.”

“Was he now?” Terry glanced at Samuel but the youth didn’t meet his gaze. “I’ve been in more than one scrap with ol’ Morgan as both friend and foil. I can’t believe he survived a duel with one of the most famous firespinners in Columbia.”

“Do you know who Jack and Mercy Templeton were?” Harper asked.

Terry frowned, clearly confused by the sudden change in topic. “Sure. That was Sam’s old man and sister.”

“And did your friend Morgan ever mention that he killed them?” Harper held up his bit of kindling lengthwise between his fingertips. “Wood was Morgan’s trade and a wondrous trade it is. A large enough tree had a mind of its own but in the hands of a skilled worker even a few sticks will move on their own. Sometimes that’s all it takes to be deadly.”

For the first time since he’d started speaking the people of Granite Valley had nothing to say. “It’s a simple thing to break a wagon’s axle. Simpler still if one has mastered the ways of a hedge mage. You only need to see the stage coach you’ve targeted and you can work a magic to snap it like a matchstick.”

A voice in the back said, “No doubt Morgan was a master wood worker with magic and without.” The townsfolk turned on the speaker, aghast. It was Sheriff Delaney. The tall, gangly man stroked his graying mustache thoughtfully as he walked towards the front of the room. “I’m not saying he killed Sam’s family, folks, just that he could do what Mr. Harper’s saying.”

“The Carlyles were ruthless enough to kill the coachman and the guards but neither the brothers or Hale were expecting passengers on the Rapid City coach,” Harper said. “When the coach crashed the men on the outside were thrown free. The strongbox broke out of its moorings and crushed the two passengers inside – namely, Jack and Mercy Templeton.”

“He couldn’t have,” Terry snapped. “I’m telling you, Morgan Hale didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.”

“If I break open a dam and kill others with the floodwaters how malicious I was when I broke it isn’t important.”

“You’re not wrong, Mr. Harper,” Sheriff Delaney said, squaring off against the other man. “Perhaps Hale had a hand in their deaths. Why would he wind up with the rest of Templeton family when they came here to the Valley? Wouldn’t he have avoided them instead?”

“That’s not something I can answer,” Harper said. “I asked, but neither he nor Jenny would tell me how it was they crossed paths out there on the high plains. I have my suspicions.”

“Like what?” Terry demanded.

“I think he was looking for them, maybe even followed them from Rapid City.” Harper glanced at Samuel. “But I wasn’t there when they met, I don’t know what he said to Jenny to win her trust and frankly I don’t care, either. The moment is long past. If it matters to you, there’s one person who was there you can ask.”

Attention swung back to Jenny’s boy and he looked down, unwilling to meet the townsfolk’s eyes. After an awkward moment, the sheriff cleared his throat. “If you know so little about Mr. Hale, why bother coming here at all?”

“Oh, I know a fair bit about Morgan Hale.” Harper studied the sheriff with clear amusement. “Like I said, I found Hale about six months after the coach robbery. Took time to pick up the trail. Plenty of opportunities to learn about him while I was poking around Rapid City and talking to his old associates. In fact, when I found him here I’d say I knew more about him than anyone in Granite Valley at the time.”

“And then what?” Terry demanded. “You could’ve taken him in easy, so why didn’t you?”

“As I said, I found him working on a fence by a new house on the north end of your good town,” Harper said, making himself comfortable on the Hearth. “The Templeton house, although I didn’t know that then. Planned to get the drop o him and give him the option to come quiet. That fell through when a kid of about ten came out of the house with a jug of water and sat down to watch him work. Wasn’t the right time to step in, so I came back to the local hospitality for the night.”

“Nice of you to consider the innocent,” Sheriff Delaney said.

“Kids are a variable I like to avoid, if I’m honest,” Harper replied in deadly earnest. “Everyone goes a little odd when they’re around, law abiding or not.”

“Your compassion inspires.”

“Someone must’ve recognized me in town – not surprising since that old Tetzlani bounty was still on my head at the time. Whatever it was, word got back to Jenny and she found me at the saloon.” Harper folded his arms and leaned back until he was dangerously close to the roaring flames of the Hearth. “She had some nonsense ideas-”

“She told you the truth!” Samuel snapped, his patience finally stretched beyond bearing. “You just didn’t want to listen to it.”

Harper’s eyes narrowed and the Hearthfire behind him crackled and dimmed, the flames burning lower as if in response to his mood. “What would you know about it, son?”

“I’m more Morgan’s son than yours, Roy Harper,” Samuel snapped. “Ma couldn’t believe what an obstinate, hard headed man you were. I must’ve heard the story at least once a year. She asked you to leave Morgan alone and you refused.”

“I did,” Harper admitted. “The money on his head was more than just my room and board, Mr. Templeton. It was a sign of how heavy his crimes were and how strong the demand for justice. My job is to make sure people like Morgan Hale feel the weight of those demands.”

Samuel paced back and forth, gesturing wildly with his hands in a way that reminded the townfolk of his mother. “Justice? Justice from a firespinner? All people like you do is spread dath through the west. Violence only begets more violence.”

“Spoken like someone who knows little of the art.”

“It is your profession,” Terry muttered.

Neither Harper nor Samuel took notice, both men were seemingly lost in the recounting of a long standing dispute. Behind them the fire leapt and snapped, casting their shadows over the room. For a moment, as if by the magic of the Hearth, the son channeled the spirit of his mother to argue the fate of the departed man once more.

What does killing Morgan accomplish?” Samuel demanded on his mother’s behalf. “It won’t bring back what we lost. The dead will still be dead, you’ll just have created more of them.”

“The measure of justice isn’t life,” Harper said. “Nor is it restitution. Justice is measured by retribution so that those who take from others also lose what they gained unjustly.”

“Isn’t it enough that Morgan has created a widow and a grieving mother?” Samuel slumped, grief clear in the line of his shoulders. “How many more wives and mothers will suffer before your sense of justice is satisfied?”

“The absence of grief doesn’t create justice,” Harper replied. “And no one will mourn Hale. His mother threw him out of her home and he never married.”

“You know his family?”

“No better than you.” With each answer Harper’s intensity built and the fire stoked higher behind him. “If both are equally likely then our arguments are of equal weight wouldn’t you say?”

“I’d hardly say they’re equally likely. What mother could hate her children that much?”

Harper took a deep breath and let it out slowly, the fire behind him gradually returning to normal. “And yet it seemed to me that your mother hand little affection for her own daughter, given how little grief she showed.”

“It seemed that way to me, too,” Samuel admitted. With that, the spell was broken and they were back in the present, the crowd at the Hearth letting out a collective breath they hadn’t realized they’d been holding. “But mother had already spent what grief she allowed herself. Her concern was for me. I remember what she told me, over and over, when I cursed the people who killed my father. The same thing she said to you.”

Harper nodded. “She refused to raise her son in a world without Mercy.”

Terry put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “It must have been hard to learn who Morgan was. When did your mother tell you?”

“When Mr. Harper came back the next year.”

Sheriff Delaney gave Harper a hard look. “You came back?”

“Every year, even after Jenny was dead,” Harper said. He held up Hale’s wanted poster for them all to see. “Four hundred and fifty silver marks. That’s not a price put on a head for just one or two deaths, cold as that may sound. Hale helped the Carlyles kill three other souls beyond the Templetons. Farnsworth bank went bust after that robbery and half the town moved out for greener pastures. Bandits and the Sanna picked over the rest. Jenny wanted to buy out all that debt in the name of Mercy.”

“You don’t think a girl’s life and memory are worth more than a few hundred marks?” Terry asked.

Harper took his stick and pointed at the funerary pyre. “A person’s life cannot be simplified to a pile of sticks or a stack of silver. To pretend it is goes beyond foolish into the realm of true evil. Yet we have to try something so we name a price in coins or try to repay sins in virtue. But Mercy? To pay a debt in Mercy both the one who offers and the one who receives must accept it and live by it. Jenny Templeton offered. I never believed Morgan Hale could accept it.”

Harper set the piece of wood aside. As he spoke he carefully folded the wanted poster in half once, twice and a third time. “So I came back here every year. Every year, Jenny met me to send me away, at least until she died. Then her son met me instead. I grew familiar with the arguments they made to defend their decision. I never agreed with it.”

“Why not?” Sheriff Delaney asked.

“I believed sooner or later Hale would take off again after easy money and bloody chaos.” Harper took the poster and the piece of wood and put them back on the pyre with the stick holding the paper in place. “But I was wrong. He never did, not even when he was poor and dying. He knew he was the same as Jenny, he couldn’t live without Mercy. I suppose I owed it to him to acknowledge that.”

“You didn’t have to come here and do it in the middle of his funeral,” Terry snarled. “Have some respect.”

“I’m not the only one out there who knew Morgan Hale as a villain,” Harper replied. “You’d have heard the story sooner or later. The fact of the matter is, you heard it here, in a position to weight it against all the other things Hale did in his life. If you heard it later? After your memories faded and the importance of being fair to a dead man was no longer forefront in your mind? Perhaps you wouldn’t see the issue with such clarity.”

Harper dusted his hands off and started through the crowd, which reluctantly parted for him. “You can’t change Morgan Hale’s fate now,” he said, stopping by the building’s door and facing them one last time. “All you can do is take the measure of his life and decide if it ended rightly. If it did, then Jenny and Samuel Templeton made the right decisions.”

“And if not?” The sheriff asked.

“Well, in that case next time you see a wanted man just send to Oakheart Manor in Keegan’s Bluff. Let me know. I told you, didn’t I? My name is Roy Harper and my profession is violence. I’ll get it taken care of.” He tipped his hat to the people of Granite Valley and left them to consider his words and the life of Morgan Hale.

A Tale for Wintertide

We’re getting close to the opening act of the next Roy Harper adventure and as we do it’s time to take another look at his world. I’ve written several short stories in the Columbian West since the end of Fire and Gold. While several of these are built around Roy himself one or two place the focus on other characters including today’s. For those curious about the chronology, A Tale for Wintertide takes place after Fire and Gold. It fills out a little world building and lets us take another look at a character I had no plans for after Firespinner but who really endeared himself to me over the course of that story.

Today we spend a little time with Hezekiah Oldfathers.

Hezekiah slammed the cabin door behind him, stomping the snow off his boot and shaking it off his tattered coat. “Dust and ashes,” he muttered, unwinding the scarf from his neck. “I will never get used to how cold it gets in the mountains.”

“It’s barely even cold yet, Mr. Oldfathers.” Thomas Blythe popped out of the kitchen and helped him balance on his peg leg as he pulled his boot off. He was a grinning, cherub faced boy who looked like he should still be missing teeth. The child was small for his age, barely four feet tall, and rather ashamed of it. Hezekiah tried to be understanding but he hadn’t been eleven for a very long time and often did a poor job of it.

His brother Andrew had been sitting by the hearth when Hezekiah arrived, whittling. He took a moment to tuck his knife in its sheath before coming over as well, although by that point Hezekiah was pretty much settled. He handed the second brother his wooden cane and the package he’d brought with him. Not for the first time he marveled at the similarities between the two children. Identical twins weren’t the most common thing, overall, and druids generally discouraged them from joining the order so Hezekiah had never really interacted with a pair of them before.

Now, he knew two.

“Are Reeds and Marshall here?” Even as he asked Hezekiah was looking around the small main room of the house, checking for the two Sanna men himself. But if they’d arrived there were no signs of them in the Blythe household.

“They’re coming back from the lake and said not to wait for them.” Nora Blythe bustled out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. Her long black hair was pinned up in a braid but the kerchief she usually wore over it was missing today. Her simple cotton dress was a dull red. “Hello, General.”

“Hello, Nora. How are things here?”

“Oh, the same as always. Dinner will be ready in an hour, so we have a little time.” She gestured towards the fire crackling on the hearth. “Come in, have a seat by the fire.”

Hezekiah stepped onto the worn wooden boards of the cabin, raising his hand in the Sign of the Hearth, and said, “May our Lady watch over this house and all within.”

“And our Lord give us clear skies without,” the other three replied.

As he moved towards the fire Andrew tugged on his sleeve and Hezekiah leaned down to hear what he had to say. “You know,” the boy whispered with complete sincerity, “You don’t have to say the Blessing. She won’t mind.”

Nora stifled a chuckle at that. Hezekiah also smiled but whispered back, “Your mother may not and the Lady in Burning Stone certainly wouldn’t. But don’t you think it’s rude to the women who do so much not to bless them when there’s a chance?”

The twins rolled there eyes but didn’t respond. Hezekiah took his things back from Andrew then straightened to examine the hearth itself. He knew Nora had been a Hearth Keeper, one of the Lady’s clergywomen, during the long past years of her youth. That’s how she’d met her late husband and ultimately left the order. However she’d taken the lessons of the Keepers to heart and done a fine job building a welcoming and homely hearth. Moreover she’d learned the knack of decorating for Wintertide.

Patches of red drift roses covered the top and sides of the stone hearth, not quite the same as the traditional mistletoe but readily available in the region where mistletoe was not. Hezekiah settled into the wooden chair beside the window and smiled as the warmth washed over him. “Now that’s a pleasant fire. Well done, Nora.”

“Thank you,” she said, settling into the chair opposite his. Andrew returned to his whittling while Thomas flopped on his belly in front of the fire.

“I can’t believe he thinks it’s cold outside, ma!” Thomas said, resting his chin in his hands and staring at the flames.

“We can’t all be as hardy as you, Tom,” she replied.

“Do you enjoy the cold?” Hezekiah asked.

“Do I!” Thomas rolled over and threw his arms out wide to the ceiling. “Snow is the best!”

“Well you can’t go out in it,” Andrew retorted, “dinner is soon and we can’t miss it. The River brothers are going to be here!”

“But it’s so boring sitting here waiting.”

“Perhaps we could sing a few cants to pass the time,” Nora suggested, reaching for a worn book sitting on the sideboard behind her. She paused when both boys let out dramatic groans of disapproval. Hezekiah wasn’t sure if it was a dislike for music in general or the Hearth Keeper’s cants specifically.

“It’s Wintertide,” he said, thinking a change of subject might be warranted. “Traditionally in Palmyra we tell stories to pass the long nights.”

“It’s a bit early for Wintertide stories,” Nora said, doubtfully. “The solstice is still two weeks away and the Winter Cycle is meant to be told over ten days.”

“Well, there’s plenty of stories outside the Cycle to tell, isn’t there?”

The twins both sat up straight and turned to look at him intently. “That sounds good!” Andrew announced. “But what kind of stories do you tell? We really only know the Cycle itself.”

“Well the Cycle is about the tragedy of winter and the hope of spring so usually you tell something scary or sad,” Hezekiah mused. He saw Nora’s eyes get wide and suddenly realized this might not be the best idea after all. It had only been four months since their father died. He backpedaled quickly. “You don’t have to, though! My own grandmother had this hilarious yarn she spun every Wintertide about berry preserves and how you couldn’t always tell if they’d fermented…”

Nora cleared her throat. “Maybe we can think of something else to try.”

“Aw…” Thomas flopped flat on the floor again. “I wanted to hear something scary!”

“Yeah!” Andrew piped in.

Their mother sighed. “Well, perhaps. But don’t blame me if you have difficulty sleeping tonight, understand?”

“Okay!” The twins swing their full attention back to Hezekiah. “What kind of scary stories do you know, Mr. Oldfathers?”

“Uh…” Now that he was thinking about it, he didn’t actually know that many he could tell. When he was not that much older than the two of them he’d joined the Knights of the Stone Circle and been initiated into the secrets of the druidic order as established by Arthur the Phoenixborne. A lot of the things he’d learned since then were terrifying but bound by his oath of secrecy. All the supposedly frightening things he’d heard outside of that context hadn’t really bothered him so, while he knew he had heard such stories, he couldn’t remember them. “Actually, I can’t think of a good one.”

The twins sagged in disappointment. Nora glanced at her boys then over at the old general. “Do you know any tragedies?”

“You lived through the Lakeshire war, Nora,” Hezekiah said softly. “What do you think?”

The boys snapped upright again. “Oooh,” they said in perfect unison, “tell a story about the War, Mr. Oldfathers!”

He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. The late Harvey Blythe had fought in Columbian blue during the war. Hezekiah Oldfathers was the seniormost druid from the Stone Circle to don Lakeshire green. As far as he knew he’d never fought in an action against the Blythes directly but he wasn’t sure Nora would appreciate being reminded of their old animosity either. Then a thought occurred to him.

Hezekiah took his package and pulled the twine holding the paper around it together. Inside was a block of silver about the size and thickness of the palm of his hand. A single sulfurite crystal sat in the middle of it, glowing with the dull red light of the fires trapped within. Once it was a silver sword his father gave him on joining the Stone Circle. Now… well, sometimes it was still a sword. Sometimes it was a cane. With the properties of silver it could be whatever he wished with a little time and magic.

He put a thumb on the crystal, holding the block in the palm of his other hand. Closing his eyes, Hezekiah pictured a long gone collection of standing stones and willed the magic out of the crystal and into the silver. The metal came to life and shaped itself into a replica of Morainehenge, one of the five Great Henges built by Arthur and his followers over the last thousand years.

And the only one destroyed in all that time.

“All right, boys, I suppose I can tell you about the Siege of Trenton Southwick.” Hezekiah nudged a footstool out from under the sideboard and put the small replica of his home Henge down on it. “Have you ever heard his name?”

Both of the twins shook their head in mute silence.

“I’m not surprised, few people outside the Order pay attention to the leaders of the druids. Master Southwick lead our fellowship, when the Henge still stood.” Hezekiah sat back, his gaze drifting up to the roof and back through the mists of time. “In the last days of the Palmyra campaign, after the city proper was in Columbian hands, the last stop on the long march North was Morainehenge itself. Once it was clear the troops remaining in Palmyra could not hold the city with the Five Ridges in enemy hands, Master Southwick called together those druids who still remained. There were a surprising number of us.”

“Did a lot of druids die in the war?” Thomas asked it with the guileless innocence of the young and naïve.

“Some,” Hezekiah admitted. “Of the five knights promoted to a seat on the Founder’s Council, the Knight of Retribution was replaced most frequently during the war. Our vengeance burned hot in those days, but rarely lasted long. That chair was empty when the Master called us in. Jesse Jackson, the Knight of Justice, was out on campaign at the time, so he was also missing. However the other three in the Founder’s seats were present.”

“Which one were you?” Andrew asked.

“I was the assistant master, not a member of the Council. Along with Master Southwick, we seven were charged with the safekeeping of every druid in Columbia along with maintaining the principles of Avaloni Chivalry as laid out by Arthur Phoenixborne. Two of us were missing, and that’s about the proportion of druids overall absent from our ranks. Most were away from the Circle, some were dead.” Hezekiah sighed and passed his hand over his eyes, wiping away memories of faces long gone. “But most of us were there. Nearly three thousand of the best and brightest druids the nation of Columbia ever produced, ready to fulfill our oaths to defend the Circle against all dangers until our very last breath. Master Southwick had emptied the reliquary and brought every weapon, every piece of armor, every charm and talisman and ring we possessed with him in a trunk.”

“What kinds of weapons were there?” Thomas demanded, eyes aglow with wonder.

“I cannot say.” He smiled sadly. “It’s a secret I promised to take to the grave. Though some would say the oath means little now, it’s not a pledge I will quickly break. If the Lord and Lady favor you, perhaps you’ll see some part of it, one day.”

“So he called you there to make a stand?” Nora asked. “That’s impossible. A battle like that would have ripped the Moraines asunder and wiped out dozens of army divisions. Everyone knows Five Ridges was the end of the war!”

“You’re right twice, but wrong at the end. There was one battle after the Ridges. The Siege of Trenton Southwick, as I said, but it wasn’t the thing you’re picturing. You see, once we were all together, Master Southwick addressed us one last time. He stripped us all of rank-”

Nora gasped quietly.

“-and expelled us from the Circle. Every last druid was relieved of his duties and oaths and sent away, from the rawest initiates all the way up to the seated Knights of the Founder’s Council. Then he put that trunk full of relics in my hands.” Hezekiah held out his hands, remembering the size and weight of the terrible thing. “And he said, ‘Hezekiah, there’s not a knight here worthy of carrying these but somewhere out there, men who will be worthy of that responsibility are waiting to be discovered. You must go and find them.’ Then he expelled me too.”

“Even you!” Andrew threw his hands in the air in a comical display of fury. “Even you! I don’t believe it! Why?”

“He knew, boy.” Hezekiah took a deep breath and shook his head. “We all knew that the Circle was doomed. Most of us would have happily fought and died there, since it was our duty, and the rest were bound by oath. Things sworn on those Stones are not so easy to escape, after all. But Master Southwick wasn’t willing to let the legacy of the Circle die out and he expelled us so we wouldn’t have to go that far. Maybe that was good of him. And maybe not.”

“So you all left?” Andrew asked.

“He had the right to be there and we didn’t. The Stone Circle wasn’t exactly what the Columbians thought it was but there was a lot of power there and Master Southwick had access to it in ways we didn’t after that. He could move us out by force if he wanted and we didn’t have the heart to fight him. But I stayed in the hills just outside it to watch. I thought I owed him that much.”

“What happened?” Nora asked.

“Master Southwick cultivated the yew – the plant was grafted to his body when he was just a boy, as it is for all those with that gift. But, with enough magic, the process can be done in reverse exactly once. The Master grafted himself into a yew tree he’d planted near the Circle when he was promoted to the Founder’s Council and grew it to towering size.” Hezekiah pointed a finger at the model of the Stone Circle and a small tree grew there, its branches stretching upwards until they towered over the dolmen and waving threateningly at anyone who might invade. “Not a single Columbian soldier made it within the stones while he still lived in that tree.

“They sent companies of soldiers with fire and ax and he broke them. They brought powerful magics and trained hedge mages of their own but none of them could hold a candle to the Master’s skill. In the end, they dug in around the Circle and waited, because once the man cleaves to the tree, sooner or later, the wood claims the man. For Master Southwick it took forty days and forty nights, longer than any other druid I have heard of, but in the end it still claimed him. On the morning of the forty first day the leaves of the Master’s yew turned yellow and I knew he was gone. That was his last breath – and the end of the Stone Circle.”

For a long moment there was silence in the cabin then Nora said, “I’m sorry.”

Hezekiah grunted and waved the words away. He’d long since made his peace with those days and to his surprise sharing them had been much easier than he’d expected. “The Master of the Stone Circle stands in place of Arthur Phoenixborne himself. He had the right to spare his subordinates the full cost of their oaths. But who can take the load from the Master? Only Arthur stands above him and the King of Avalon has not been seen since he began to Walk with the Storm.”

He leaned forward and picked up the model of the Henge, staring at it for a long moment. “They say Arthur still defends his people to this day, watching over them from every drop of rain and every bolt of lightning that falls on the earth. Some say he shows himself to the worthy, saving them at their moment of greatest need. Yet over the course of forty days not one cloud darkened the skies above Morainehenge. Perhaps we were not meant to keep the Circle.” He pressed the model between his hands and shaped it back into its normal form as a walking cane then rested it against the wall beside him. “Wintertide comes after the leaves turn yellow and fall from the branches. In time, they will bud once again. All mourning is followed by joy. I have seen it myself, time and again, in the years since I left the Stone Circle. Master Southwick didn’t just take my old duties from me, he gave me new ones. I’ve done my best to carry them out.”

He gave Nora a meaningful glance. “After all, we cannot dress in mourning forever. That’s the lesson of Wintertide.”

Nora smoothed her hands over her red dress and smiled. “True enough. Now, boys, I think its time to set the table before the River brothers get here.” She clapped her hands twice and the boys scrambled into motion. As she got up to head back to the kitchen she paused to say, “General, I haven’t forgotten the part I’ve played in your own days of mourning. But I am glad they’ve passed now.”

Hezekiah leaned back in his chair and listened to the sounds of a healthy home and he smiled, too. “So am I,” he murmured under his breath. “So am I.”

Fire and Gold – Afterwords

Here we are, at the end of another Roy Harper tale. A little later than I hoped but well within the length that I predicted when I finished my outline. I am pretty satisfied with some aspects of where I am and a little disappointed with others. Late last year I had hoped to segue directly from Fire and Gold into my latest round of essays. Unfortunately I caught the Dreadful Virus in January and it put me way behind schedule on all fronts and particularly on writing projects.

So, I’m falling back on my normal format and taking a week off next week. After that we’ll be diving into the wolly world of writing and looking at whatever catches my fancy. There will be at least five weeks of essays before we dive into the next round of fiction, probably more. In addition to the usual topics, I’ll be talking about some of my own projects in the abstract. Particularly my upcoming novella Burning Bright, which, for the first time, I will not be publishing on this blog. More on that in due course.

I’ll also be discussing fiction I loved and hated in recent memory, what we can learn from the wonderful world of propaganda and taking a wider look at publishing as a whole. Hopefully at least one of those topics will interest you.

In the mean time, a recap of my thoughts on Fire and Gold after actually finishing the project. First and foremost, I feel this story is rougher than the previous Roy Harper tales because I didn’t have test readers for it. Due to some decisions I made last year I did not finish Fire and Gold a month before each chapter went live, unlike the other Harper stories I’ve done. I used that extra time to send the chapters out to two test readers who gave me useful feedback on things like tone, comprehensibility and characters. There wasn’t time for that in this story.

If I do choose to publish the Roy Harper adventures in a more permanent form I’ll have to go out and get that feedback before I publish Fire and Gold. I definitely felt its loss while writing this. I also felt less invested in this story as I wrote it because I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I was in previous installments. Hernando and Danica were nasty people who were set up to get knocked down. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But it definitely proved a barrier to digging into those characters and writing them with the same glee as I do when I write from the perspective of characters like Roy, Lang or others.

All that said, I am satisfied with the way Fire and Gold came out and I think it’s a good look at the kind of thing Roy does day by day, and why he chooses to do it the way he does. Hopefully you enjoyed it as well. See you in two weeks.

Fire and Gold Epilogue – Hearth and Storm

Previous Chapter

Trenton Ferry was a small town on a small tributary near the southern border of Columbian territory that existed almost entirely because sulfurite prospectors moving west needed a place to cross the river. The Hearthfire there was typical of buildings raised in tribute to the Lady in Burning Stone. There was a large, domed central chamber with a great stone hearth at the center where a fire was kept lit at all times. Smaller chambers dedicated to various other purposes surrounded the central fire. Most people never set foot in them.

The central chamber was what really mattered and that was where Roy went first when he got back. He left Brandon at the doorway in the care of his sister and a matronly Hearth Keeper. He’d come back from the battle with the gold drinkers lame in one leg and they hoped there was a healer among the Keepers who could help him recover. He’d most likely become one of those handful who saw a side chamber of a Hearthfire.

Cassandra left with another Keeper. The two women were going to look in on the ranch’s sole survivor, who would need looking after until he came of age. He was still at least five years from fifteen and adulthood. Cassie had sung him to sleep for most of the trip back and he was sleeping in the hotel for the moment. Most Hearth Fires had attached orphanages and those that didn’t knew of one only a train ride away.

Roy went straight into the main chamber. A dozen stone benches ringed the massive flame, far enough back that even normal people would be comfortable. He ignored them and walked straight up to the hearth. Heat rolled over him in waves, full of the power and potential of fire but without the constant whispers he usually heard from flames. For some reason he never heard them when among the Hearth Keepers.

“Can I help you, my son?”

Roy turned from the fire to find a middle aged Hearth Keeper watching him from just inside the ring of benches. The red scarf around her neck marked her as the Hearth Mother, the highest ranking Keeper and, just as importantly, a married woman. She was beautiful, with wavy brown hair and a motherly figure. But lines of age were beginning to crease her face and gray hair was showing around her temples.

Roy let down the bag he carried over his shoulder, nodding to the woman in greeting. “You can, mother. My name is Roy Harper and I’ve brought you an offering of gold tainted by vice and greed.”

The Hearth Mother took a deep breath, the pained expression that flitted across her face suggesting this was a common occurrence for her. “Of course, my son.” She gestured towards the fire. “Let the fire cleanse it of inequity and we will share it with those in need.”

Roy nodded and dug the small sack of coins out of his bag. The gold drinkers he’d brought down had been wealthier than many of the outlaws and strange creatures he’d hunted across the West. However the fact that he’d had to borrow a silver sword from Hezekiah Oldfathers and strain that wealth out of their blood had put him off the idea of keeping their gold for himself. It wasn’t like he needed the money. After more than a decade of wading through the worst sides of humanity Roy had made his peace with throwing away money for his own peace of mind. The Hearth Keepers never asked where tainted gold came from. When a man and wealth were parted by fire all crimes done in the name of greed were forgotten. If not forgiven.

So he watched the cloth bag burn away, leaving the misshapen lumps of gold slowly melting on the hearth, then he turned back to the Hearth Mother. “I trust you’ll put it to better use.”

“I hope we will.”

She watched him leave in silence, a contrast to most of the Hearth Mothers he’d met. In the years after he’d left the army he’d often gone to the Hearthfires, if only to blot out the voices of less sacred flames. Almost every Hearth Mother he’d met there had tried to, well, mother him. He’d been asked what troubled him or if he was traveling safely by Hearth Mothers more time than he could count. Perhaps that wasn’t surprising, this far to the West.

Most who came that way were in search of wealth and grew increasingly desperate if they couldn’t find it. And desperate men will do anything. Roy wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the Hearth Keepers received more tainted gold here in the West than anywhere else in Columbia. He’d stopped wondering about the source of criminal’s wealth after catching his first bounty. He suspected things were much the same for the Hearth Mother.

If healer’s examinations were the same from Hearth Keepers as army medics Roy figured Brandon would be tied up for at least the next hour so he went on to his next stop on his own. Besides, the Watch Post was almost a mile’s walk outside of town. Like most places this far south, the land around Trenton’s Ferry was dry as grave dirt. There was some greenery around the river but it disappeared from sight once Roy crossed the first rise, leaving him in a world of dull brown dirt and tan colored stone.

The general slope of the land was upwards and after a few ups and downs he came across a footpath leading up a hill that stood a good twenty feet above its surroundings. A narrow path snaked between scrub brush and stone outcroppings. Roy counted four switchbacks around looming rock spurs before he reached the summit and a part of him was glad he didn’t have to try and take the point by force. A dozen men could hold off an army for a few days here, longer depending on how much magic each side had.

At the top of the hill was a tower. Not wood, as was the usual custom, but stone. The base was large enough for a couple of bed chambers, a kitchen and a common room and the watch tower itself rose to a height of thirty feet overhead, commanding an excellent view of everything around. A man in blue denim pants and robes stood guard at the door, leaning on his spear as he watched Roy approach.

“Hello there,” he called, hitching his thumbs into his belt. “What brings you here? Fair weather or foul?”

“Both,” Roy said. He hefted an oilskin bundle that he’d pulled from his bag during the walk up. “I’ve come to claim the price on these heads.”

The man by the door – more of a kid, Roy saw as he drew closer – wavered when he saw the bundle, turning green around the edges. He nodded and opened the door behind him. “I’ll go up the tower and let the Stormfather know you’re here.”

Roy nodded and walked into the common room. The Watch Post was a spartan environment, furnished with simple wooden furniture and a wooden board with a slew of wanted posters nailed to it. By force of habit Roy looked them over to see if any unfamiliar faces had shown up. He was still perusing the posters when the Stormfather came back with the other Watcher. The head of the Watch Post looked about forty, with a tan and wrinkled face that naturally settled into a half smile when he wasn’t grinning and shaking hands, which was the first thing he did when he saw Roy.

“Mr. Harper,” the Stormfather said, “welcome back. No new prices on heads, I’m afraid, although no new criminals showing up is good for the rest of us you’ll probably find the lack of work troublesome.”

“Unfortunately I’ve never had any trouble finding work,” Roy replied. Then he pointed to one part of the board that was suddenly empty. “Did someone really catch Stove Pipe Nick? The Packards have been trying to get him for years.”

“Sheriff up in Winchester County jailed him a couple of weeks ago. He escaped but the Sheriff found his body in the scrub just recently.” The Stormfather shrugged. “Desert’s a harsh mistress and even great skytrain robbers can run afoul of her.”

“True enough.” Roy set the oilcloth bundle on the table. “I’m afraid these four called for more aggressive measures than leaving them for the desert to claim.”

The Stormfather carefully untied the bundle and opened it. The heads of the four gold drinkers lolled out, their eyes staring into nothing. The younger Watchman stifled a gasp. “Is that a child?”

“Not for weeks, at least,” Roy said gently. “Once the Change takes hold there’s nothing left but the monster.”

The Stormfather gave him a skeptical look. “I thought you said your tome told of a way for them to return from their depravity.”

“No, there’s a way for them to undo the Change and remove their need for blood to survive.” Roy drummed his fingers absently on the Journal in his jacket pocket. “I read more after our meeting, as we were scouring the countryside. It seems that converting their bodies back doesn’t undo the change to their minds. If they wish to come back from their depravity they have to actively choose to do that and rebuild their humanity brick by brick, just like any other monster man can choose to be.”

“That doesn’t seem fair,” the young man said. He pointed at the small girl’s head. “You can’t tell me a seven year old girl chose to undergo the Change.”

“Not everyone in a war chooses to fight it,” Roy replied. “War still makes monsters of them, at times, and we judge them the same, don’t we?”

“Enough.” The Stormfather closed up the bundle and gently moved it to one side. “The time for judgment is long past. Any chances there were to avoid this outcome passed long ago and likely were not ours to take. This is a time for mourning. Go down to the homestead and tell your brother to let Ma know we’ll be down in the graveyard after we’re relieved.”

The young man nodded and hurried out of the room. Roy watched him running down the hill with the energy of a young man who had received a shock and didn’t know what to do with himself. Then he replayed his memories and compared the younger man to his father. “Adopted?”

“He takes more after his mother.” The Stormfather got up, his back suddenly bent as if he’d aged twenty years in the last five minutes. “I’ll get your payment. Two hundred marks for the lot, as agreed. I wasn’t expecting four of them, and I’d offer you more if we had it, but we don’t keep that much money on hand.”

“Two hundred is fine.”

The watchman paused in the process of unlocking a chest in the corner of the room. “Oh? Given your reputation I thought you’d take more issue with it.”

Roy tilted his head, curious. “I’m afraid I don’t pay that much attention to my reputation, so long as it isn’t likely to get me run out of town.”

The chest thumped behind the Stormfather as he crossed back to the table. “They say you’ve never once worked for free.”

“Ah. That.” Roy nodded his understanding. “The first honest to goodness firespinner I met when I came out West told me something I’ve never forgotten: Everyone in the world needs your help. There’s only one of you. If they’re not willing to give up something to get that help they don’t need it as badly as someone who will.”

The other man snorted as he thumped a bag of coin down between them. “Not everyone has something to trade.”

“As we’ve just established, the price is mine to choose.” Roy picked up the bag and tossed it once before slipping it into his pocket. “And people have more than just money to offer. The man who told me that took his payments in time, after all.”

The Stormfather studied him for a moment, then glanced at the oilcloth. “You make it sound as if firespinners are no different than gold drinkers.”

“We’re quite similar,” Roy said with a faint smile. “As similar as you are to them. I can’t speak for these gold drinkers in particular but I’ve seen my share of people descent into monsters. The change comes when they stop thinking about others and seek nothing but their own goals. They drink blood because they don’t care about what others value. I ask for a trade because I do. It’s a small difference but it makes all the difference in the world.”

The Stormfather sighed and gathered up the bundle of heads. “I hope you’re right. Thank you for your help, Mr. Harper.”

Roy nodded and walked out of the Watch Post, silently hoping he was right as well.

Fire and Gold Chapter Seven – Unchanging

Previous Chapter

Danica surged upwards, trying to scream but unable to find the breath for it. The spear gave the barest twitch but didn’t come free. Iron and gold collected around the intruding bronze point, trying to heal the wound but unable to do anything as long as the foreign mass remained impaled in her. Her deadened senses were not enough to protect her from the pain. She had to escape.

Forcing her weight of metal away from the spear point Danica built up mass in her right arm. Taking a moment to steel herself, she yanked her right arm, like a child on its belly trying to roll over. The wooden floorboards underneath her creaked. Then, with a snapping motion she felt in her sternum, the spear came free. Her elbow nudged the langets of the spear, partially dislodging it from her body, while the momentum of her yank rolled her over and finished the process. The weapon clattered on the floor and rolled off somewhere. Danica lay on her back and gasped for breath, loosing all track of time as her metal reserves knitted her tortured body back together.

She was dragged back to the moment by an ugly, wet chopping noise. The young gold drinker squinted, her vision swimming. She was staring at a blurry mass of brown and black which quickly resolved itself into a drifting cloud of smoke drifting through the rafters of a wooden roof. Right. She’d reached for a coin on the floor and the spear hit her in the back. That was a bad thing.

Something rolling across the floor bumped into her arm. With a groan Danica sat up and looked to see what it was.

Hernando’s face stared back at her.

His bloodless head had picked up smudges of ash and his mouth gaped open in a wordless scream. Danica couldn’t tell if he was furious or terrified. He was definitely dead.

Dazed, she pushed the head away with one hand and looked around, trying to make sense of what was around her. The floor was dirt and ashes. Hernando’s body lay on the floor about ten feet away; a strange man in blue knelt by it.

The man had spread a kerchief out under the stump of Hernando’s neck and now he held the flat of a sword there. As Danica stared at it a gold coin dripped from the point of the blade and fell onto the kerchief. The man ignored it as he rummaged through Hernando’s pockets. A surge of anger flooded through Danica, whether it was because he’d killed Hernando or because he was ignoring the gold she couldn’t tell. She scrambled to her feet and grabbed the spear just below its head.

Some noise she made while getting up attracted the stranger’s attention because he quickly spun about, remaining in his crouch but turning to look directly at her, the point of his curved sword aimed squarely between her eyes. The stranger scowled. “Pellinore didn’t think children could go through the Change. Sorry to see he was wrong.”

Danica took one step forward and swayed, leaning on the spear haft to keep herself upright. “I’m not a child. I’m a gold drinker.”

The stranger’s eyes narrowed. “Perhaps you’re a little of both, young lady. You sayin’ you won’t renounce your gold, then?”

“I won’t what?”

“You didn’t hear?”

She tilted her head to one side, thinking back, but she was pretty sure she’d never heard the stranger’s clipped, nasally voice before. “No.”

“Pellinore was wrong about the hearing, too,” he muttered under his breath. She resisted the urge to laugh at something she obviously wasn’t meant to hear. He continued, “You can pass back through the Change if you renounce your gold.”

Her eyes narrowed. On the one hand he seemed to know things Hernando had never told her on the other he clearly had it second hand and didn’t know how trustworthy it was. “How would I do that?”

“Its a complicated process but I have exhaustive instructions for how to go about it.” His off hand gathered up the kerchief and the gold coins in it then carefully stood. Behind him, Hernando’s body lay pale and bloodless.

Danica turned her attention from the body to the stranger’s sword point. His weapon was unsettling but she saw small ripples, probably invisible to the human eye, along the flat of its blade. “I suppose you got those instructions from the same place you got your fancy sword?”

He snapped the point in a tight circle that warned her he was very familiar with the weapon. “This? A loaner from an acquaintance familiar with the book I found them in. Now. Will you renounce your gold or not?”

Danica scowled. She’d never have survived her life until that point if she hadn’t had the resilience of gold in her veins. On the other hand, he had killed Hernando and two of his Converts. Danica herself was the smallest and weakest of the de la Feugoes. She needed to be clever. “Wh-what would I have to do?”

“Well, let’s have a look the specifics.” The point of the man’s sword lowered as he reached into his jacket with his other hand. The coins in the kerchief he was holding clanked, focusing all of Danica’s attention on for a second before she could shake herself free. Her grip tightened on the spear. The stranger snorted and shook his head, stopping his off hand halfway, changing the movement to shove the kerchief and gold into his outside pocket. He poked the cloth and metal into place securely with two fingers. He had something else curled into his hand, which he started to put in his pocket on top of the kerchief. Danica squinted, wondering what it was.

When his fingers uncurled to bring it forward she realized it was Hernando’s money bag.

The stranger shoved the bag away. The moment his wrist reached the hem of his pocket Danica hefted the spear and threw it at him with her full weight behind it. The weapon was excellent as it practically flew itself out of her hand. The timing of her attack was as good as she could make it but it wasn’t enough to overcome the man’s reflexes.

He got out of the way but the projecting langets on the spear’s head caught the man’s sword and pulled it out of line. She lept forward, covering the ten feet between them in two flying steps. The stranger tried to ward her off with his free hand but it got tangled in his coat pocket. She slapped his sword arm with the full weight of metal behind the hit. The stranger dropped his weapon.

It slid across the floor a short distance. One step took her over to it and another crashed her heel down on the rippling imperfection on the sword blade. It snapped in half, the point spinning away in one direction, the hilt in the other. The hilt came to a stop by the stranger’s boots. He scooped it up with a casual movement and pointed it her as if the blade was still intact. The brilliant yellow gleam of gold in the center of the jagged, snapped end of the blade drew Danica’s eyes until she forced them away.

“What are you planning to do with that?” She asked.

He grimaced. “I suppose I’ll have to kill you and drain the iron and gold from your blood until there’s nothing but water left.”

“With six inches of sword left?”

He pulled his off hand from his pocket, still holding Hernando’s bag. He slit the side of it open with what remained of his sword then gave it a slight shake, letting the contents spill out onto the ground. To her horror, Danica found it impossible to draw her gaze away from the shining silver coins as the tumbled onto the floor. A strange compulsion overcame her. She dropped onto her hands and knees, trying to find and count how many of them there were. Five- no six- no ten- no –

She reached fifteen when her feet were kicked out from under her, dropping her onto her face once more. This time, instead of a spear, a heavy weight settled on her back and a hand gripped her hair and held her head down. Even in that position she found her eyes still drawn to the coins she could see in the corner of her eyes. “This is your last chance,” the stranger said. “Renounce your gold.”

Terror gripped Danica. Deep within she knew that she was still alive only because the stranger had offered her one last chance to undo the Change. But as frightened as she was of death she was even more terrified of the idea of living in a world where monsters like Hernando de la Feugo existed without the power of gold in her veins. “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll live without taking blood. I can be your friend, your daughter, even grow into your lover if you want. But don’t ask me to give up the gold. I can’t. I can’t live like that again.”

The stranger sighed. His weight shifted slightly and the broken tip of his sword came into view. Danica tensed but to her surprise the sword just touched one of the coins lying in her field of vision. Then, to her greater shock, the silver in the coin began to flow up into the sword blade, adding it’s own small weight of metal to that of the stranger’s weapon. He repeated this process over and over as he spoke. “Your sire must not have told you much after he Changed you. In fact, you’re so young I imagine you can’t have been a drinker long.”

“What do you mean?”

“Gold drinkers must spend blood to rebuild their body. The stories say most believe they only spend it to heal themselves quickly but the truth is more complicated.” For the cost of only ten silver marks the stranger had rebuilt his sword to its previous size. The weapon moved out of sight. “In truth, the body dies a little every day, and must heal itself to repair the damage for we are mortal. Not even Gold drinkers are immune to this. But one thing you lose in the Change is the ability to heal without a cost of gold and iron. If you forsake blood you will die in a matter of days. It’s more merciful to end it quickly. Your sire didn’t tell you this?”

“No.” Danica whispered.

“And your gold?”

She gritted her teeth. “It is mine. My key to life, to freedom to veng-”

But Danica de la Feugo’s claims to all three ended at the edge of a silvered sword.

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