In which our hero learns the downside of fame.
Easric rarely received anything from Pearl Snow that wasn’t disgusting. It was the nature of witches to find the sublime in viscera.
He eyed the grocer. He eyed the unmarked postal slot in the wall behind the counter. He weighed the package doubtfully. It was small, thin, and light. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with a string. Pearl’s loopy script said only, “Easric Dane.” There was no address. He had no address. How her packages found him, he didn’t know.
He sniffed at it, smelled nothing dead; nothing but the leather, grains, and dust of the general mercantile.
He thanked the grocer without conviction.
“Here now!” the grocer shouted past Easric. “You keep away from that man!”
Easric spun, package dropped, revolver out.
A kid stood outside, framed in the open doorway, pocketknife in hand. Sight of the revolver froze him solid. He paled and blinked. His pocketknife clattered to the wooden boardwalk.
Beside the kid, a man. He flung the rope bonds the kid had cut from his hands to the ground and he ran. He ran for his life.
Easric bolted after, bowling the kid over, out onto the through-road of Deer Cross Post.
The man made for Easric’s horse hitched nearby. He whipped the shotgun from the saddle scabbard, had no time to aim, and fired. Easric, beneath the shot; the store’s window blew, canning jars burst, jam everywhere.
He swung the shotgun, defiant. Easric caught it with a smack of wood on skin; stronger, twisted it free and slammed the man to the ground. He fell on him; threw all his mass behind a slap so hard the man’s eyes rolled back, struck silly.
Easric dragged him back to the porch by his collar, bound him with new cords.
He looked around for the kid, wanting to give him a whipping he’d never forget.
The grocer had the kid by the scruff of his neck. “What you want to do with him, Warden?”
The kid was, what, six? Ten? Easric had no sense for children’s ages. The kid didn’t struggle against the grocer. He stood, shirt twisted in the grocer’s hand. No fear. Only awe at what he’d seen.
Easric sighed. “Let him go.”
“You don’t want to give him a whipping, I will.”
“He won’t remember it come morning,” Easric said. “Let him go. Damage is done.”
The grocer let the kid go. The shirt stayed twisted. The kid knelt, retrieved his knife, his eyes never leaving Easric and his prisoner. Easric knew the kid would keep the knife somewhere safe. Maybe he’d never use it again. And when he had a boy of his own, he’d pass the thing on and tell him his story: how he helped the outlaw Freedom Cordrey escape Easric Dane, was almost shot, then watched as Easric caught him again.
The grocer said to the kid, “What he give you to help him?”
“He didn’t have to give him anything,” Easric said. “He promised him he’d be famous.”
In which our hero crosses into enemy lands.
Riding north of the trading post on a dirt-packed road, prisoner in tow, Easric opened Pearl’s package.
An enclosed note read only: “Sign and return.”
There were always cryptic notes. Once, he’d taken her to task on this. “It’s the cards,” she had said in her charlatan voice. “The cards show me forms, not meanings. Meanings, you must provide.”
Easric thought that was bullshit. He told her so. He thought she was only covering her ass.
With the note was a book. The book was entitled The Rosemond Gold: Being the Sixth Romance of Easric Dane, by Hugo Lovelace.
Lovelace had toured the Marches once, ten years previous, an Imperial newspaperman. He covered the horse races. Of horses, he knew plenty. Of everything else, he’d taken only the sketchiest notes. And when he returned to the capitol, he introduced a war-tired Empire to his favorite savage, Corporal Easric Dane, March Warden of the Crossings, Second Company, having not the foggiest notion what that title meant. It was just something he’d heard.
Easric Dane had never met the man.
It was a sixpenny bit of sensationalist crap.
He cursed Pearl Snow, hoping her witchy ears could hear. She expected him to read.
“Now, sweet daughter,” the General boasted, “I will show you how your father will regain the Emperor’s favor, so unjustly lost.”
He slid aside the glowering portrait of his venerable grandfather and revealed the wall safe whose existence none would ever guess. Therein he had locked away the ancient manuscript that held the secret to opening the Rosemond Crossing. Thus would the mountain of gold that had lain hidden within the pagan mound for untold ages come into his possession; thus his salvation; thus his glory. His palms grew excitedly moist as he tumbled the lock.
He swung open the heavy steel door.
“Papa!” the lovely and devoted Beatrice cried. “Whatever is the matter? Why have you gone so pale?”
“Stolen,” the General hissed. “Stolen!” he shouted, enraged. “It was Easric Dane, I know it! Upon my soul, it must have been he!”
Not only was it awful, but Pearl couldn’t possibly be suggesting there was any truth to it. There was no gold under Rose Mound. Imperial prospectors had proven that when they tore the thing down, looking. No Crossing, neither; no spiritland. The land there was dead as any to the east.
He thought of drowning the book in the river. He thought of taking her note literally, autographing its title page and mailing it back, postage due. But Pearl Snow had a wicked pack of cards. They brooked none of Easric’s sass and weren’t lightly ignored.
He put his horse east toward the Lentenlyf river.
“Think of it as a reprieve,” Easric told Cordrey. “But don’t get too used to breathing. It won’t be a long one.”
A spirit-stone stood on the bank of the ford, a limestone obelisk six feet tall and cut with offering holes long weathered to pits.
Spirit-stones marked Crossings just as mounds often did, so Easric stopped and closed his eyes and cocked his head and felt for one.
“It’s dead,” Cordrey said. “Anyone can tell that.”
Easric wasn’t sure. Like children, Easric wasn’t so solidly rooted in the real world. He had a knack for falling through Crossings and getting lost on the other side. The shamans had offered to train him, but studying chafed him raw, and he’d turned them down. Still, thirty-seven years of falling through had taught him something.
He nudged the horse forward one step at a time.
But Cordrey was right. The stone and its Crossing were dead. It seemed nearly all were these days, and there were so few shamans to tend those that were left.
Easric dropped down from his horse beside the stone. One eye on Cordrey, he pulled leaves of sweetgrass and wove them into a braid and tied it into a loop. He tossed it over the top of the stone and it hung there, skewed. He asked the stone for its blessing.
Cordrey laughed at him.
Easric thought of killing him. Crossing into Imperial lands was trouble enough. Hauling a captive along while he did it was madness. He laid his hand on his revolver.
“So no hanging after all,” Cordrey said. “No vengeance for the people or object-lesson to ornery boys. And no swinging trophy for the great Warden Dane.”
Easric glared, but his hand fell away from his revolver.
In which our man of action reads a book.
Easric lay naked but for his hat. His trousers lay nearby, legs tied together, stuffed with the things that had needed to stay dry: his revolver, powder horn, matches, notebook and lead stylus, and the rest of his clothes. As his horse had plowed the river, he’d worn it around his neck.
Sun dried him, tightened his skin. Breeze rattled the grass and reeds. It made his hairs stand on end and his balls pull up. It felt very nice.
Freedom Cordrey was not naked. He’d been dragged through the River Lentenlyf, still bound, with a horse lead wrapped beneath his arms. He’d nearly drowned. His clothes were soaked and wouldn’t dry for hours. He lay in the sand, miserable, like a netted fish.
Easric read, book shielding his eyes from the sun.
“Your father lied to you, Beatrice,” Easric said solemnly. “Now put down the pistol and let’s talk.”
Cordrey said, “All that trouble you’ve given them over the years, if they catch you this side of the river, they’ll hang you.”
“Yep,” Easric said.
“Papa would never deceive me so!” Beatrice exclaimed defiantly.
“There’s proof!” Easric declared, and he threw down the papers he’d retrieved. “It was the General, your father, who betrayed your dear brother to the Sorcerer’s men. Your brother’s life was the price your father paid for the secret of Rosemond. Anything to restore his lost honor. Even you, Beatrice, would he sacrifice for his vanity.”
“I’m not a wanted man over here,” Cordrey said. “They’ll hang you, and then they’ll set me free. Funny how things switch around just by crossing a river.”
Easric turned a page.
Beatrice’s eyes raced along the pages, widening in horror at each line. “No, no! I won’t believe it! My brother, my brother, to what terrible doom has our father condemned you?” Her pistol fell to the floor. She poured forth her heartbreak into a soprano shriek of despair, and swooned.
“You don’t care they hang you, do you? But they set me free, that would burn you up,” Cordrey said.
“Yep,” Easric said.
Easric caught her in his firm but gentle embrace. He patted her cold and deathly cheek until her long lashes fluttered open in response.
“I guess you can’t let them catch you, then,” Cordrey said.
“Oh, Easric, can you forgive me? They poisoned my heart with tales of your savage appetites. How could I have known they were lies? Only forgive me and swear you’ll see justice done. Avenge my brother; avenge me! Only such generous manhood as yours can stand firm before the likes of my father.”
“‘Generous manhood,'” Easric said. “Got that right.”
Easric dressed. He made a hobble of rawhide so Cordrey could walk but not run. He tied Cordrey’s hands in front of him and dallied the extra rope.
Cordrey walked while Easric rode. The going was slow. It would take them a week or more to get to Rose Mound.
“That supposed to be you on the cover there?” Cordrey asked.
The illustration was a woodblock print. It showed a man from the waist up, hairless chest broad, shirt somehow both tight and undone, as if shirts weren’t made what could cover a chest like that. He held a revolver in one hand, a rose in the other. The revolver was smoking, and the lines of the smoke formed a languid woman of unlikely curves reclining on a pile of gold. Her eyes were come-hither. The man’s face was bold. Its one scar was perfectly placed to accent his jaw.
“They ain’t never seen you have they?” Cordrey said.
Easric was blond and blue-eyed and broad as a bull. There it ended. He was not tall. He was hairy as a wolf except where scars marked him. His small ears stuck out through shaggy hair and got in the way of his hat sitting right. His nose was broken three ways, and his upper lip cleft by a knife wound so awful he had to talk with care so as not to mix his sounds. It wasn’t the most terrible wound on his body, just the one that everyone saw.
“And that woman, we both know she’s wasting her time,” Cordrey said.
There was nothing of this land to tell it was Imperial. These grasses were the same as those of the March, west of the Lentenlyf. These rocks here were the same quartz and chert and limestone. These antique hills, the same alluvial wash. It was the same sky.
They waded through grasses grown four feet tall.
There wasn’t a spirit to be felt anywhere, neither a Crossing for it to call home. The sweetgrass didn’t smell the same.
Still, Easric picked flowers as they went and tucked them into the band of his hat.
Evenings, Easric hog-tied Cordrey, feet bound to hands. Eyes cool, Cordrey’s hate lay just beneath. Easric could’ve warmed his hands by it.
He knew what Cordrey was thinking. He was thinking how Easric would die. He was playing out stories in his pretty head, picking the best parts of each. And when he’d made a story he liked well enough, Freedom Cordrey would make it happen.
It’s what Easric would have done were he in his place.
He didn’t make a fire. He read as long as daylight allowed, as much as he could stand.
Easric knelt near the dying outlaw and shook his head sadly. “I’m sorry to have done it, Billy, but you gave me no choice. Here you are; drink up. It will help ease your passing.”
Billy took the flask Easric offered and tried to bring it to his lips, but he shook too badly and the liquid only spilled. Easric held the young bandit’s hands in his own as gently as he might those of an infant, and he helped him to drink. It was whiskey, and the dying man sighed with contentment as that heart-strong draught of those sons of the plains dulled his pain.
“How can you be so good to me, knowing all the evil I’ve done?” the young brigand whispered. He coughed, and a ruby droplet of his failing lifeblood quivered on his tender lip.
“The world dealt you a bad hand, Billy,” Easric said somberly. “Had things been different, I know you’d never have served the Sorcerer’s cause. Were life not so cruel, we might have fought side by side. Think on that, Billy. Think on that.” Then the light faded from that misguided youth’s eyes, and Easric brushed them gently closed. “God take and keep you, Billy.”
Easric threw the book down. Had he been a witch, he’d have set it afire with nothing but his eyes.
“That what you think?” he spat at Cordrey, “The world’s dealt you a bad hand?”
Cordrey frowned, confused.
“Know what I think?” Easric said. “I think you’re a goddamn parasite, you and everyone like you. And you weren’t born that way, and the world didn’t make you that way. It was your choice. And the only whiskey you’re getting is what I piss on your grave.”
Cordrey smiled. Then he burst into a fit of laughter that left him wheezing. “Billy,” he said. “You’re a slow reader, Dane. For days I’ve been watching you build up a good steam. If anything was going to make you blow, I knew it’d be Billy.”
“You’ve read this?”
“I’ve read them all. ‘Know your enemy,’ just like the Saint says.”
“You think I’m anything like the man in this book, you don’t know me from shit.”
“You ain’t nothing like the man in that book. But you’d like to be, and that’s all I need to know.”
It was true, he would have liked that—if a gentle-hearted lawman stood any chance at all.
In which what the reader has long suspected would happen, happens.
Four days, and they’d not seen a soul. It was too much to hope that luck would continue. Around noon he saw the Imperial patrol some two miles out. Two men on horseback. And they saw him. They turned and headed straight towards him.
He thought to make a run, but there was Cordrey on foot, and he’d be damned if he let the bastard go.
“You’d best shoot them now,” Cordrey said.
Easric ran options, rejected them all. He kept his revolver holstered. He didn’t draw the shotgun. He put the horse to a small clearing in the tallgrass then dropped down and stood calmly, hands clasped at his belt.
“They’ll arrest you,” Cordrey said.
The soldiers came in at a canter.
“You know what I’ll do,” Cordrey said.
They slowed to a trot. They wore unsubtle overcoats of Imperial red. One was older, the other just out of boyhood. Both had carbines out but not up.
“You’ll regret this,” Cordrey said. And when Easric still paid him no mind, he shouted, “It’s Easric Dane! It’s Easric Dane. Shoot him. Shoot him, goddamn you, before he kills us all!”
The two men did not shoot. They reined in their horses just inside the clearing, ten yards away.
“He doesn’t look anything like Easric Dane,” the older said.
“Look at his damn coat,” Cordrey said. “Who else would he be?”
The insignia sewn to the shoulder of Easric’s brown greatcoat was a ragged patch of linen cut into a 2. It was plain as day who he was.
The younger snapped his carbine up, aimed it at Easric.
The older soldier looked pleased. “And who are you?” he said to Cordrey.
“Rasmus Tripp,” Cordrey said. “From Hallow Hill, south of here—”
“I know Hallow Hill,” the soldier said.
Easric let Cordrey spin his lie. It bought him time while he took the soldiers’ measure.
“I got a farm there. Dane, he rode in, he took me, said he’d kill my family I didn’t come. Said I was security. Look what he done to me!” and Cordrey held up his bound hands. Four days of tight rawhide had ruined the flesh of his wrists.
“Warden Dane,” the older soldier said. “You’re a long way from home, in violation of treaty. Why are you here?”
“He’s going to Rose Mound,” Cordrey said.
The soldier’s eyes narrowed. “You going to say anything, Dane?”
Easric ignored him, eyes on the younger soldier. Easric knew his type. He was smarter than his superior; stuck with a duty he abhorred, like holding a gun on a lawman he respected, but too disciplined to protest. Easric liked that. He hoped the young man lived.
To the young soldier he said, “I’m Easric Dane. And this here is Freedom Cordrey. He’s a murderer. I’ve caught him. And I’m taking him to hang.”
The young soldier’s eyes went wide and he blinked away sweat, but his carbine didn’t waver.
“You’re lying,” the older soldier said. “Cordrey’s got no reason to come this far across the river. And even if he did and you’re taking him for hanging, you’re going the wrong way.” Behind Easric stretching west was a trail of bent grass that any trained scout could see. “Throw down that revolver.”
So Easric did.
The soldier dismounted, told the younger to keep his carbine on Easric, and went to Cordrey. He drew a knife.
Easric said to the young soldier, “You let him free that man, he’ll kill us all.”
The older scoffed. He knelt to cut Cordrey’s hobble.
“Does he look like a farmer to you?” Easric said.
The younger shifted his carbine to Cordrey.
The older sliced through the cord.
Easric cracked Cordrey hard in the ribs with an elbow, twisted the soldier’s arm and wrenched it up across his back. The knife flew. He held the arm there, threw his other across the soldier’s throat, used him as a shield. The younger was now on the ground, carbine up and aimed. “Let him go!” he said, no clear shot.
Easric had lost sight of Cordrey.
Easric tried to fish the soldier’s revolver from its holster, but it was already gone.
A shot cracked from close behind. The soldier’s temple burst in an ugly spray and he went rag-doll in Easric’s arms. Easric kept him up, kept him facing the younger soldier. Had Cordrey wanted him dead, he’d have done it already.
Easric stood between two armed men. He couldn’t face one without turning his back to the other.
He made hand signs to the young soldier, hoped he understood.
The soldier nodded, and Easric dropped the corpse and threw himself flat.
The soldier fired over Easric. Then his eyes widened in panic. He dropped the spent carbine, went for his revolver, then lost his nerve. Instead of drawing, he turned and took two steps for his horse. Crack, and the soldier fell, shot in the small of his back.
Easric rolled standing and looked behind him. Cordrey crouched half-hidden between dense tufts of waist-high grass on the clearing’s edge. He was grinning wide, revolver on Easric.
Easric scrambled for his own revolver lying in the grass ten feet away, and Cordrey fired. The revolver bounced and Easric jerked back. He dove again and Cordrey shot it again.
Easric gave up and spread his arms. “Come on, you son of a bitch. This is what you been dreaming of, ain’t it?”
“I got bigger dreams,” Cordrey said.
Easric frowned, then he closed his arms together in front, ready to be tied.
Cordrey said, “I ain’t coming within ten feet of you, gun or no gun.”
“Well, what then?”
Cordrey took the reins of Easric’s horse in his bound-up hands, held them and the revolver together, and led the horse away. When he had a safe distance, he mounted the horse more smoothly than Easric would have believed possible with his hands bound. That’s what practice would get you.
Cordrey shot one of the Imperial horses in the head. Then he shot the other.
Six shots. Easric lunged for his revolver, came up and fired. It wouldn’t fire.
“You know where to find me, Dane,” Cordrey said, and he waved Easric’s copy of The Rosemond Gold, and he rode off.
“There ain’t no gold!” Easric shouted.
“Then why are we here?” Cordrey called back.
Easric threw the lead-mangled revolver after him, howling curses. Then he stood alone in breeze-stricken grass and let his eyes drift over the dead.
The young soldier wasn’t dead. Easric knelt beside him. The soldier’s head thrashed and his hands clawed the earth. He fought back screams through clenched teeth. His legs didn’t move at all.
Easric held him, grabbed his chin in a vice to focus him and bent close. “Listen to me. Are you listening?” And though the soldier’s eyes were wild, he nodded. “You’re dying,” Easric said. “Do you understand?”
“Listen to me. You’re going to die.”
“I can’t.” He gasped fast short breaths to manage his pain.
The soldier was Imperial. He had no spirits. The grass would not sing him to sleep. He’d die alone. “I’ll stay with you,” Easric said. “I won’t leave.”
“I can’t die,” the soldier said, “Not now. God won’t take me. I sinned.”
“You didn’t sin. You were going for cover.”
“I tried to run. I’m going to die a coward and he won’t take me.”
Easric had abandoned the Imperial faith long ago. Their bloody god was good for curses and little else. He fought to keep his thoughts silent.
Then the soldier’s eyes cleared. “You’re Easric Dane,” he said. “They say you’re a saint.”
That wasn’t part of Lovelace’s romances. Some Imperial soldiers had heard rumors and told their own stories, ones Easric liked even less. Easric was plagued by stories. “I’m not a saint.”
“They say it’s a blessing to be killed by a saint.” The young soldier touched a finger between his eyes. “I promise I won’t look away.”
In which the witch’s intention becomes clear.
Rose Mound was the largest mound known. It lay alone. From balloon, the scalloped cut of its tiers made it resemble its namesake. Or once it had. Fifty years ago, prospectors and treasure hunters had torn the thing down.
It had always been extinct, so no one had cared.
It was now an unsightly hill, bearing only traces of the pre-historic labor that had shaped it. It was sheathed in scaffolding. There was an enormous wooden construction. Teams of oxen turned a great wooden wheel, which turned a cog, which turned another and so on, until the entire assembly turned a great auger, boring out the mound at an angle. Dirt spilled into waiting rail-carts. They hadn’t used steam. There was not enough water. The auger flickered with witchlight runes.
Hard by was a mining camp. Its tents and shacks and sheds were set in neat rows. These were not the raggedy gold-diggers of the high plains. These were Imperial engineers.
Easric had a telescopic spyglass to his eye that he’d taken from one of the dead soldiers’ packs, days before. He saw a group of soldiers, an officer leading them. With them was a man. His hair was worked into braids, river-polished stones threaded through them; agates and opals and turquoise, green and yellow and blue like captured stars. Those beads said he was a shaman. Spirit-dead as Imperial land was, no shaman would come willingly this side of the river. He was bound in chains.
The officer argued. The shaman stood resolute. A soldier cracked his rifle butt into the back of the shaman’s head, and he dropped like a stone.
Easric’s mind went white, no thought but fear for the shaman’s life. He drew the young soldier’s revolver and rushed low through the grass.
He slid to a stop. There was only one reason to bring a shaman here.
He closed his eyes and cocked his head, listening. He groped the air with both hands like a panicking blind man, feeling.
There it was. Easric felt it; what no one had ever felt at Rose Mound, he felt it. A Crossing. It was thin and fragile. It slipped through his hands. He hadn’t training enough to part it.
Easric blessed Pearl Snow and her pack of cards. This was why she had sent him. Somehow a Crossing had been born.
The Empire had no use for such places. To them they weren’t sacred. They would tear it down for a rumor of gold unless he did something to stop them.
Rose Mound exploded as mining charges blew. From one side of the mound, dust plumed. Dirt and rock rattled down for a hundred yards.
The Crossing rippled in response. The air quivered; glimpses of a land beyond. And like a chasm had opened below his feet, Easric fell through.
A riot of color that made no sense, hurt his eyes, made him retch. Then:
Blasted land that had never known water. Deep purple sky. The fairy dust of unborn planets wove maypoles there. Close-by, stars. Not knowing their place, they fell and they fell and they fell. A morning star caught on the horn of the Moon and stuck there. Rose Mound was a desert rose, pink gypsum petals unfurling, tall as wizards’ towers; scent thick as love.
Easric was used to strange things. He knew a hundred Crossings, all in their lives’ winter, different than the physical world by nothing more than the angle of a shadow, or the scent of a flower that wasn’t there, or the North Star found in the West.
He knew of none like this one, not even a rumor. He’d believed the days of newborn Crossings long gone.
He spun, arms wide. He howled and he bayed at the confused stars and Moon, and he wept childlike with joy.
All was silent. Then from beneath the petals of living rock flowed bats in a black shrieking fog. They made up the spaces between the stars. They nudged the Moon and it rocked like a cradle. They swelled overhead.
Another explosion. A cataclysm. Falling home.
In which our villain finds fertile ground for the seeds of his revenge.
Lieutenant Colonel Nasica didn’t believe Freedom Cordrey, not one word he said. “For all I know, you’re in with Dane thick as thieves.”
Cordrey blew smoke from a machine-rolled cigarette. They sat in Nasica’s headquarters. The table between them was covered by surveys and maps.
“If you think we’re friends, you don’t know Easric Dane,” Cordrey said. He set down his coffee. He lifted his hands and let his shirtsleeves fall and showed Nasica his wrists. “I can show you the rest of my bruises, if you like. I guarantee you, we ain’t anywhere close to friends.”
“All those do is remind me you’re an outlaw.”
“I ain’t an outlaw. Least not over here. To look at it one way, I’m your best friend. I never done nothing to Imperial folk. Never even crossed that river until Dane brought me here. Now Dane, he’s your outlaw. How many times has he busted up your men and hid behind that treaty?”
Cordrey nodded to the Lieutenant Colonel’s dog-eared copy of The Rosemond Gold and produced his own. “These books say the only thing keeping your military honest is Dane. These books make you all out to be fools. He’s more a hero than your own saints. That must smart. Especially what with the way he runs off with the General’s daughter in the end. You all let your wives read these books?” Cordrey smiled and smoke bled between his teeth. “You got a daughter?”
“It would be a sign of goodwill to hang you, Cordrey. Send you back in a box. Unless you have a point?”
“I’m thinking there’s a bounty on Easric Dane’s head. Under the table, quiet, so it don’t upset his admirers. That treasure you’re hunting, how much of it you give me, I deliver him up?”
“What makes you think you can deliver me Dane?”
“I got away from him. That’s tearing him up. You make a show of me, let him see where I am, there ain’t nothing that’ll keep him from coming for me.” He ground his cigarette under his boot. “It’s the kind of man he is.”
Nasica thought of his daughter. He thought of his wife, whose damn book it had been to begin with before he took it away and read it himself. He thought of the way the two had conferred over it, giggled over it, shot him glances, found him wanting.
Nasica stood. He took Cordrey’s coffee. He dumped it. He refilled the cup with a good brandy, then filled his own.
In which Easric shows his compassion.
It rained dead bats.
The first pelted the ground not three feet before Easric.
He dropped to his knees and doubled over, hands clasped over his neck, knowing what was coming, having seen this before. The rain of gore came down. Bats smacked around him. They flopped. Entrails spattered. One struck him in the back. Another in the shoulder, and still they came down.
Five seconds they fell.
And when the horrible dull thunder of them stopped, he unclasped his hands and rose up and looked around.
There were hundreds of them, spirits all caught in the quake of the Crossing and too weak to live in the physical world. They were all of them dead but one. It was tiny, a pup. Its fur was silver-brown. Its wings were black. It was ugly and wicked looking. Who could figure spirits? It could have been anything. It chose to be a bat. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
Easric reached for it. He thought of disease. He said to it, “You son of a bitch, you bite me, I’ll tear your head off.”
He picked it up. It bit him. Blood welled. He cussed it but held it no less gently. If he went rabid and died, it was his own damn fault for touching it. And he was pretty sure—almost sure—that a spirit could carry no earthly disease.
He opened his coat. The bat climbed inside it and hung by small claws from the lining. “I’m Easric Dane,” he told it. “I’ll get you home. I promise.”
In which Easric gets his man.
Two unconscious guards later, Easric had himself two rifles. Along a patrol route on the border of the camp, he set up his distraction.
With his spyglass he’d seen Cordrey wandering the camp, free as you please. Cordrey had gone to a tin shack, looked around to see who was watching, then slipped in.
Easric told himself he was there to find the shaman and take the newborn spirit back to its home. He’d watched the enchanted auger bore its way down and thought about blowing it slivers. But now he was here, his head was filled with nothing but Cordrey and blood.
Five minutes later and far away from where he’d set his trap, Easric heard his rifles go off. A patrol had tripped the wire he’d strung. Shouts went up. Klaxons rang and soldiers ran, leaving unguarded space behind them. It was almost too easy.
“Sir, Cordrey’s gone,” the soldier reported.
Lieutenant Colonel Nasica shot standing and cursed.
“We were walking him through the camp like you said, and I don’t know how he did it, but—”
Two pops in the distance, klaxons and shouting. Nasica ran to the door. “It’s Dane. He’s here.” Men were swarming toward the gunfire. They were going the wrong way. God dammit, he’d been right and Cordrey and Dane were in this together. “They’ll go for that shaman,” he said.
Easric cracked open the door to the shack.
A lantern burned on a shelf. Its glass was soot-streaked, its wick needed trimming, and the light it spat had no substance.
The shaman stood facing the door. The agates in his hair flickered like fireflies, green and enchanted. He’d been freed of his chains. They lay at his feet. Still, he didn’t move. Cordrey stood behind him, revolver pressed to the shaman’s temple.
Easric’s revolver was up.
“Close the door, Dane,” Cordrey said. “I’ve been trying to get this shaman to cross me over, but he don’t seem inclined. Maybe you can talk sense to him.”
Easric closed the door with his foot. Behind it lay an Imperial guard, throat cut.
“We got about two minutes, I figure, before the whole damn army shows up,” Cordrey said. “You got two choices. Tell this old man to cross us over, all of us, or take your chances with the army.”
The bat writhed under Easric’s coat, a claw dug into his chest. “You won’t kill him. You need him to get your damn treasure.”
“Thought you didn’t believe in it?”
“Doesn’t matter what I believe.”
From outside someone shouted, “Corporal Dane, surrender!”
“Quicker than I thought,” Cordrey said. “Time’s up, Dane. Make your choice.”
Easric said nothing, stood there stock still, both hands on his revolver, waiting, breath slow and even.
From outside, “Five seconds, Dane, then we open fire!”
Easric smiled. “Your new friends don’t like you any more than I do.”
“Cross us over,” Cordrey said. “Cross us over now!”
Then the bat went crazy. It bit Easric on the chest. It gnawed. Its claws raked at him. Easric danced and threw open his coat to free the damn beast. It shot to the ceiling.
The shaman’s eyes went wide with delight.
Cordrey swung his revolver up toward it.
“No!” Easric shouted, and fired.
Lieutenant Colonel Nasica shouldn’t have given Dane any warning at all. With the shaman freed, Dane and Cordrey could cross over any time they liked.
But there was good money in a living Easric Dane. In the Empire, the remains of saints were kept in reliquaries on trains. They made a circuit of the Empire, blessing the towns they passed through; inspiring young dreams of glory. To mock those damnable stories that made Dane out to be some kind of saint, some imaginative brass had commissioned a reliquary especially for him. It would make no circuit. Dane’s slow dismembering would be private, and a ticket to watch wouldn’t be cheap.
It would be a shame to blow the man to ribbons and let all that money go.
A shot came from within the shed. So much for the dream.
“Fire,” he said.
Cordrey lay, a neat hole in the center of his throat and spine shattered to hell. It would have been a perfect shot.
Easric was down on all fours by the shaman. From a furrow his bullet had made in the old man’s neck, blood spilled in time with his heart. Easric tried to cover the wound but a spray wet his hand, and it was warm and struck him like a voltaic shock and he couldn’t bear to touch what he had done. Worst of it all was the shaman’s look of bliss as the bat lapped his blood.
“Cross us over,” Easric asked him.
The soldiers opened fire and Easric fell to his stomach, and a Gatling gun rattled, rifles cracked, and bullets tore through the tin walls. Red rays from lanterns outside painted dust and debris. Bits of spinning metal nicked at him. The two men’s blood soaked into his clothes.
“Cross us over. Please. I can’t save it on my own.” He took the shaman’s hand, not believing the old man could hear him anymore.
The bullets didn’t stop, and the rays turned to sheets as the holes widened and merged. Timber cracked into flinders. Then the whole thing fell.
In which our hero saves the world.
Easric lay for a year. Or a day. He lay as if he were dead.
Above him the spirit-sky shuffled its stars, never happy in whatever place they found; no different than men. The rose bloomed by degrees and released its perfume.
The shaman lay next to him. Easric couldn’t let go of his hand. He told him he was sorry. He didn’t ask forgiveness. There was none to be had.
Finally he rose. Clothes blood-heavy, they dragged at him. He looked a terror.
Cordrey lay there as well. He’d been a wickedly handsome man. It was a shame he’d also been a son of a bitch. Easric rifled the outlaw’s clothes, found the goddamn book that had started this all, and pocketed it.
The plain was puzzle-cracked, dirt dry as bones. His boots scuffed up dust as he walked. Someday there’d be grass. But just now there was nothing nowhere but the pink gypsum rose, the only place to go. It was a long walk.
His bat followed. It seemed he should fill the time by teaching it something of the world it had been born into. But he wasn’t a shaman. He didn’t know what to teach it, so he sang it songs. The only songs he knew were saloon bawdies. He couldn’t carry a tune, so he sang loudly instead.
He passed beneath the petal-eaves, undersides crusted dark by a million bats. He entered a grotto at the rose’s base. It was fathomless and dark. His eyes adjusted. Bright moonlight filtered in from somewhere, or perhaps it didn’t filter at all, but just was. He lay upon a dais, the cavern’s only feature as far as he could tell.
He thought what to do. He thought of all the men he would kill once he fell back through and how he would kill them, and how hopeless it was to think he could kill them all. And what would it prove, all those soldiers’ deaths, but that there was something here to die for?
And all because of a goddamn book.
He took the book from his pocket. He looked at the cover. He hadn’t looked like that since he’d been eighteen. He flipped past pages and looked at the engravings inside, text quoted beneath them, each portraying some bit of action or a dramatic and rugged landscape that was nothing like home.
He flipped to the end where Easric won. Where Easric got the treasure and got the girl. He read.
Easric and Beatrice stood within the entrance to a chamber fathomless to man.
“Oh, Easric!” Beatrice gasped. The sight before her stole away her breath and her knees weakened and she clove tight to her man. “It’s so beautiful!” And she wept.
The chamber was heaped with mounds of gold, precious gems, jewelry and gilt objects of art. There were overflowing chests and urns of all sizes, bolts of silk, jars of rare spices, rolled tapestries and carpets strewn on the floor. It was a horde worthy of a dragon, or the accumulated wealth of untold generations of banditti rapine. It glowed with a light all its own, and in that light Easric shone like the sun-bronzed statues of the Saint’s Way and Beatrice like a soft diamond by his side.
“But Easric,” Beatrice lamented, “However will we carry it all?”
“Never you mind,” consoled Easric, and he patted her delicate hand. “I’ve brought help.”
Easric spoke those magical words taught to him as a boy by those inscrutable March witch-doctors, and the spirits heeded his call.
Unbelievable. And yet they had believed. And how could he blame them? Wasn’t it a similar hope Easric had every time he made a prayer to a dead spirit-stone; hope he’d find a miracle the next time he passed by?
He read the page again. Then he smiled and knew what to do.
They’d believed part of it, and that part had been true. He’d bet even money they’d believe the rest.
In which Easric’s rivals are foiled again.
A week later the bewitched auger pierced the Crossing. No one had really expected it to work. The geologists and engineers were happily confounded. This was the hand of god at work.
Nasica lead them in, his second close behind, followed by the rest.
Their lanterns swayed at the end of poles, their light eaten up by too great a darkness. They were in a grotto with an exit to a blasted land with a sky full of madness. Nasica’s men were terrified of it and wouldn’t go out. So they went deeper in.
They found a stone dais on which lay an open book. Its spine had been broken and six pennies had been laid on the pages’ edges, three to a side, to keep them from turning.
Their lanterns swung over it. They huddled to read.
Then they looked around them at the immense empty space. No one dared say a word. Was this even possible? Well, of course it goddamn was.
Nasica drew his revolver. He clicked the cylinder around. All his men stepped back. Nasica thought of his commission. He thought of the money he’d invested—his personal fortune, others’ too. He thought of his wife’s smug look once she heard of his disgrace.
His second barked orders to start a thorough search.
“Don’t bother,” Nasica said. “We’re done here. It’s over. He’s taken it all.” There’d be nothing left, he knew. Not a coin, not a pearl, not a single thread of silk.
Easric Dane, he thought. Lawman, soldier, shaman, and saint all rolled into one, and god how he hated him. He aimed the revolver at the damnable book, thumbed back the hammer.
Then he lowered it slowly.
He snatched up the book. Coins flew.
“How much is this worth?” He thrust the open book into the face of his second, so he could see.
On the last page, just under “THE END,” scratched in lead in a blocky hand, was written: “Better luck next time. With love, Easric Dane.”
It was the only autographed copy ever of The Rosemond Gold, and it was worth a fortune.