Chapter Nine – Opening Moves

Collum dan Art folded his wings and fell into a steep, fast dive for the pure joy of it. Just before the treetops were close enough to brush his talons, Collie snapped his wings open and leveled off. The afternoon sun overhead cast a rippling hawk’s shadow onto the green canopy below.

 It was a fine, clear day, with a few stray clouds over Westering. As Collie climbed up over the forest again, he banked left to see Hollow Mountain like a dark, jagged tooth above the rolling northern hills. Collie kept leaning left and wheeled in a lazy circle until Westering came into view a few miles behind him. The Iserwood was further west, looming over the green meadows around Westering like a thunderhead. South of him was the Boreal River, a bright ribbon flowing through Westering and down into Hudson Woods, the wide tract of forest between Westering and Bradford’s Mill. The cool air of the woods pulled at him. Collie straightened out and flew due east, letting himself sink into the current of air flowing down into the shady corridors of oak and maple below.

 It was hard to keep his hawk-brain focused on the reason for his flight out of Westering. There was a break in the trees ahead, and the warm air rising from a large clearing lifted Collie up again. He looked down at a group of small houses and vegetable gardens below, and his keen eyes glimpsed movement near the vegetable garden — three fat, speckled hens. Without thinking, Collie began to circle and descend, then he remembered. We need to know how many vampires there are at Watson Farm, Erik said, and what they’re doing. He put both his large hands on Collie’s narrow shoulders, Be careful, old friend.

 Collie gave the chickens one last look, then pulled up and soared past the meadow. He found the King’s Road and settled in to to follow it when something hit him hard on the back and sent him tumbling. Collie rolled once, beat his broad wings powerfully and regained some altitude, searching the sky for his attacker. Collie heard the piercing shriek of another raptor and then saw a dark shape coming at him fast, out of the sun. He must have wandered into some other hawk’s territory, but he had no time to waste, and didn’t feel like getting attacked again. Collie tucked his wings into a dive and when he pulled up sharply and looped back to face his attacker, he was in the shape of a winged black dragon. At twenty feet long he was a small dragon, but Collie didn’t want to expend unnecessary energy just to frighten an angry bird. Dragon-Collie’s golden eyes flashed, and smoke trailed from his long jaws as his leathery wings churned the warm summer air. Collie rose quickly, straight at the diving hawk, and he was surprised that the bird didn’t immediately break off its attack. Collie was even more surprised when the hawk shape above him blurred, expanded, and then solidified into the form of a large griffin, diving at him with a piercing shriek and talons outstretched.

 Years of flying experience took over and Collie flew toward the diving griffin even faster, hoping to cause the beast to overshoot. It almost worked — the griffin tried to slow its descent, its big wings stretched out like sails — as Collie surged upward with a mighty effort, but the griffin grabbed his long dragon-tail with one talon as Collie passed underneath. The black dragon was brought up short with a jerk, then held there, thrashing and roaring as the griffin grabbed his head with its other talon, twisting it so that the blast of fire Collie breathed out just missed the griffin’s back paws. The griffin’s hooked beak opened wide in a scream and then the beast began to free-fall. Collie twisted his long neck to see the treetops rushing up to meet them, and wondered if the griffin meant to kill them both. Just before it was too late, the griffin unfurled its wings, slowing them as they crashed into the upper canopy of a large oak tree.

 Dragon and griffin tumbled down, half-falling, half-flying, and came to rest in the branches about thirty feet from the forest floor. Collie crouched on a limb and roared his displeasure as the griffin perched in a tree directly across from him, with twenty feet of clear summer air between them. Collie waited, smoke curling from his snout, ready to loose another blast of fire at the griffin. The creature twitched its long tail, then began to make a rasping sound as it folded its wings. When the griffin blurred into white smoke, shrinking to a fraction of its former size, Collie knew he’d crossed paths with another shapeshifter. As the griffin’s hoarse croaking became the sound of laughter, he knew exactly which one. Collie changed down quickly from his dragon-form. As the heat and smoke of the transformation cleared, he saw a small woman on the branch across from him. She was naked, with long, straight hair that fell like a silver waterfall over her shoulders. She sat sideways on the branch, still laughing at Collie.

 “I wish you could’ve seen yourself, Collum! I didn’t think a dragon could look surprised.” She stopped laughing and pointed at him. “You’re getting careless, Collum dan Art,” she said with a grin. She never used his nickname, which she said was humiliating. “I took you completely off-guard.”

 Collie stood up and walked to the end of his branch as easily as if he were walking on the ground thirty feet below. “I had to let you think you won,” he said with a shrug, “Otherwise, you wouldn’t have talked to me. You were always a sore loser, Rava,” Collie said.

 “If you’re not, it means you’re used to losing,” she countered. “It’s been a few years since we crossed paths, I guess,” she said, swinging her legs like a carefree child.

 Two years and five months, Collie said to himself. “I guess it has,” he said.

 “Still dressing like you’re one of them, I see,” she said, looking him up and down.

 “Still can’t find a shift that fits you, I see,” Collie said, raising one eyebrow. Rava made a scornful sound, “We’re the first living creatures God made; why should we care if those below us cover themselves out of shame or frailty?”

 Collie shook his head, “Full of compassion, as always, Rava.”

 “You’ve lived among them so long,” she replied, “you forget your true nature. I watched you fly out of that town,” Rava said, her keen grey eyes on him. “It looked for a moment like you remembered what you really are.”

 She had watched him from the time he left Westering. I am getting careless, Collie thought, Or she’s just gotten better. “It’s always good to stretch your wings,” Collie said, “Whatever kind they are.”

 “Of course it is!” Rava said, angrily, “And yet you choose to live in a tavern as Erik Magnusson’s pet.”

 Collie was stung, but he kept his voice calm, “Erik is my friend, and so is Torvald,” he said. “but friendship is something else you never understood.”

 Rava shook her head. “You don’t even feel your chains anymore.” Collie sighed, This is why it’s been two years and four months. He didn’t want to argue with her; he wanted to go to her and fly, or run, or swim, the way they once did. But that seemed like long, long ago. “So, to what do I owe the pleasure, Rava?” Collie said. “You just happened to be flying by Westering and decided to ambush me”

 Rava laughed again, musical and cruel. “Well, it’s obvious from the questions you haven’t asked that you don’t have any idea what’s going on, Collum,” she brushed her hair back off one shoulder.

 Collie was determined not to take the bait. “Been good seeing you again, Rava,” he said, looking up at the patch of clear blue sky above him. “Let’s do this again in two or three years.”

 “You’re going to the farm east of here,” she said, “where the vampires are polluting the springs.”

 “They’ve already started?”

 “Yes,” she nodded, “but it’s not too late to stop them. Not yet.” She fixed him with her cool eyes. “So, are you and Erik finally tired of wallowing in self-pity and hiding from the only thing you were ever good at,” she leaned toward him. “Killing?”

 “We’ll do what we can, and what we must, at Watson Farm,” Collie said, looking away. “Why don’t you join us? You’re quite a killer yourself, as I recall.”

 “Vampires,” Rava curled her lip in disgust, “I hate those filthy creatures, but they aren’t my concern.” She looked back at Collie. “I’ll say this, Collum dan Art, I’m glad you and Erik have finally decided to do something besides drink and tell stories.” Rava stood up, and she might have half-smiled at him as she turned. “Maybe there’s hope for a barkeep and his pet, after all.” Rava shot into the air like a silver arrow, mist trailing from her limbs as she changed up. Collie gathered himself with a grunt of effort and then a golden eagle soared after the silver one at dizzying speed over Hudson’s Woods.

 The silver eagle wouldn’t be caught. Collie fell back and let Rava go. The golden eagle screamed in frustration, then turned east and flew straight toward the thin plume of smoke rising over Bradford’s Mill.

 

~ ~ ~

 

“So,” Amelia said to Torvald, “Does your dad ever use that voice on you?” Torvald smiled, and Edward laughed. “When he said Move!” Edward shook his head. “I’ve never heard anything like that.”

 “Only once,” Torvald said. “When I was about six years old. There was a tree out there on the green that was hit by lightning,” Torvald looked out the open door of the Hart. “Almost half of it split off, and they decided the rest of it had to go. While they were cutting it down, Erik and Collie were up on the roof of the Hart, cleaning up some damage from the same storm. I was playing under the big oak, but no one noticed when I wandered off. Erik looked up when he heard a crack as the tree started to come down, and he saw I was heading right for it. When he called my name, Collie says it scared me so much that I sat down and started to cry.”

 “Awww!” Amelia said, sympathetic for little Torvald, but laughing at the same time. Torvald blushed, but laughed, too, and tried to cover his embarrassment by focusing on the rest of his lunch. When Ralph left, Edward and Amelia helped Collie and Torvald slice bread, cheese, and some kind of smoked meat, and take it upstairs on plates, along with some pickles and olives in oil. Collie rejoined Erik, Cyrus, Anna and Solomon in discussing what to do about Watson Farm, and the children went back downstairs to eat.

 Now, the Lockhearts were behind the bar with Torvald, finishing off cheese and mustard sandwiches with some freshly-pressed cider, instead of the hard variety they took to the grown-ups. Most of the crowd that had been waiting inside the Hart when Edward and Amelia came back from the North gate had moved on once they saw that the Lockhearts had neither horns nor halos. Half a dozen men still sat at two tables near the large hearth, eating bread and cheese and comparing various things they had bought at the open market on the green.

 Torvald leaned against the bar. “I wish I could’ve seen that thing in Cyrus’s wagon,” he said ruefully, “I knew it was going to be something good!”

 Amelia wrinkled her nose as she thought about the huge, dead creature and its eyeless head. “I wouldn’t say it was good, exactly.” Amelia shivered. “More like the freakiest thing I’ve ever seen.” Torvald’s brow wrinkled. “Sorry,” Amelia said, realizing he didn’t understand the slang. “I mean it was very, very odd.”

 Edward was fishing olives out of a jar with a long fork. “Yeah, apparently, giant blind ravens are unusual, even for the Wilderlands,” he said. “Too bad Herodotus, I mean Harry, the wizard isn’t here to see it. I bet he could look it up in his magical bestiary,” Edward said wistfully. Torvald chuckled, “Edward, you talk like a wizard, yourself,” he said, “Or at least, a wizard’s apprentice.” Edward grinned.

 “Oh, you’ve made a friend for life,” Amelia said with a wink. “Speaking of which,” Amelia said casually, “What’s with your dad and Solomon?” Torvald looked at Amelia strangely again. Edward piped up, “She means, Why don’t they like each other?” Amelia sighed at her brother’s complete lack of finesse, but Torvald didn’t seem to mind. “They disliked each other from the very beginning,” Torvald said, “When Solomon got here about a year ago, everybody in town was talking about the merchant who came here all the way from Almaren with his son and two servants. It was big news. They got in late, just before they closed the gates, even though that was back before the vampires,” Torvald explained. “So, the next day, Solomon comes around to visit all the merchants and introduce himself. Well, you’ve met my father, so you can imagine what he thought when Solomon came in, dressed in his fine silk robes, strutting around like he’s still in the capital.” Torvald snickered. “I was right here behind the bar with my father. He looked Solomon up and down, and then he said, If I’d known the king was coming, I would’ve taken a bath.” Torvald and the Lockhearts all laughed, and when she could speak again, Amelia said, “What did Solomon say?” Torvald was still giggling, he took a drink of cider and composed himself. “I have to give him credit, Solomon didn’t bat an eye, and he said, I seriously doubt it.

 “So, they didn’t hit it off,” Amelia giggled.

 “If that means they hated each other from the start, then yes.” Torvald said, wiping his eyes. “But there’s more to it than that, I think.”

 “What do you mean?”

 “It’s not just that they’re such different men,” Torvald shook his head, “It’s like there’s something personal between them.”

 “Like what?” Amelia prompted.

 Torvald lowered his voice, despite the noise of talking and laughter that filled the hall. “I don’t know, it’s hard to explain. I know some people, not just the Cozens, think my father is hiding something, even after all the years he’s lived here.” Torvald looked at Edward and Amelia, as if hoping for them to reassure him that this wasn’t true. Edward didn’t even have to look at his sister to know they were both thinking about Giles Cozen and his alarming note.

 “So you and Erik haven’t always lived here?” Edward asked.

 “No, “Torvald replied. “I was born on the other side of Berila, in the Eastern Walds.” Amelia had been wondering about the mother, but assumed it couldn’t be anything good, so she didn’t bring it up. “After my mother died, my father said he couldn’t bear to be reminded of her everywhere, so we came with Collie all the way across the kingdom to Westering. My father bought the White Hart from a man who didn’t intend on selling it. That’s one thing people started rumors about.”

 “What do you mean?”

 Torvald shrugged and absentmindedly gathered up their wooden plates. “Some people say my father threatened the previous owner and scared him into selling, because the man left town very soon after he got his money. Other people say my father offered five times what this place is worth, and they wonder how an honest man came by all that gold.”

 “What did Erik say?” Edward asked.

 “He said my mother’s family was well-off, and the money was from her dowry. And that he sold the house we lived in, which he and Collie built, and all our livestock.” Torvald shrugged. “It all made sense to me; I never questioned it much. Maybe I should have.”

 “He’s your father, Torvald — of course, you trust him.”

 Amelia was wondering if there was a tactful way to find out what Torvald thought about Solomon’s son, or if he even knew him, when into the White Hart walked Giles Cozen in his fine silk tunic.

 “There you are!” he said to Amelia and Edward. It was obvious from the way Giles didn’t include Torvald, or even acknowledge him, that the boys knew and disliked each other. Like fathers, like sons, Amelia thought.

 Giles walked up to the bar, half-smiling, and said, “I was afraid I’d find you two in here.”

 Torvald, looking annoyed, turned to Edward and Amelia.“I see you’ve already met the village idiot.” Edward and Amelia both felt enormously uncomfortable. They hadn’t had a chance to tell Torvald they had even met Giles; Torvald must be wondering how they already knew Solomon’s son, and what he had been saying to them.

 Still talking as if the other boy weren’t there, Giles said, “Please forgive Torvald — we can’t know how hard it is to be the ugliest barmaid in Westering.” Amelia started to blush, and Edward looked around nervously as Torvald put down his cup on the bar and took a step closer to Giles. Edward was glad the bar was between the two boys, but he wasn’t sure it was enough.

 “And of course, his father is a brute, so what kind of manners do you think he’d pass on to his offspring?”

 Torvald leaned toward Giles, who finally looked at him, over the bar and pointed to the stairway. “That brute is upstairs with your father and the council, planning how to save Bradford’s Mill from vampires. You want to put any bets on whether Solomon is joining the rescue party?” Torvald grinned.

“I never said your father wasn’t a useful brute,” Giles replied. “No, it seems someone with a nickname like ‘Erik the Bloody’ is exactly the man you need in a situation like this,” he continued. “I just wonder if he will let the town pay for his services in installments.” Giles looked at Torvald, with no hint of a smirk on his face, for once. “I hear he doesn’t come cheap.” Amelia couldn’t tell if Torvald was too angry or too shocked to respond. No one spoke. When Torvald’s long arm shot out over the bar and grabbed Giles by the neck of his silk tunic, it happened so fast that Giles didn’t have a chance to move.

 “You’re not in Almaren, Giles Cozen,” Torvald said in a low growl. He pulled Giles closer, even as Cozen put both hands on the bar and tried to push himself back. “This is the far edge of the kingdom.”

 “Don’t I know it,” Giles said, but he didn’t look, or sound so calm anymore. “These people aren’t your father’s lackeys,” Torvald said, gesturing toward the room with his left hand. Some of the men noticed what was happening and were watching now. “In fact, I don’t think they like you any more than I do, and I don’t think anyone will lift a finger to stop me if I drag you out of here and hang you upside down in the oak tree out front.”

 Torvald pulled Giles a few inches closer, now Giles’ feet were off the floor and he was holding onto Torvald’s arm with both hands. “Let go of me!” he snarled at Torvald, who instead lifted Giles slightly higher by the neck of his tunic. Giles wrenched at Torvald’s hand with no effect. Amelia and Edward were almost as flustered as Giles. Amelia kept looking at the stairs, thinking this would be a great time for Erik and/or Solomon to come down and put a stop to this. Now Giles was hanging from Torvald’s grasp like a fish being hauled into a boat. Amelia heard fabric ripping, and Giles gasped, “Let go of me!” again, but this time it was more of a plea than a command. “Let’s test my theory,” Torvald said, and  began to pull Giles down to the end of the bar.

 Somebody had to do something, but none of the men watching seemed very concerned. “Torvald!” Amelia said, coming around to his right where she could see his face. “I think you’re choking him!” Giles let go of Torvald’s arm and started flailing against the smooth surface as he slid along. He hit a mug and a plate, and both fell to the floor in front of the bar, the mug smashing on the stone floor. “Torvald, you’ve made your point!”

 Giles chose this moment to make things even worse. “You think I’m lying about your father? Ask him yourself, Torvald!” Torvald pulled Giles right to the end of the bar. “My father was in the King’s Rangers! That doesn’t make him a murderer, or a mercenary!”

 “Yes, he was in the Rangers,” Giles rasped, “And after that he was a freebooter! If you don’t believe me, just ask him!” Torvald lowered his arm until Giles could touch the floor with one foot, which took some of the pressure off his neck. Giles gasped and put both hands on the bar to push himself up. “That’s what I thought. You have asked, but he won’t talk about it, will he?” Torvald’s jaw was clenched. He didn’t respond, but he looked away from Giles. His voice almost a whisper, Giles prodded, “Why do you think he won’t talk to you about his past, Torvald?”

 Edward and Amelia looked at each other, thinking of what Torvald had said to them not five minutes before. Whether he knew it or not, Giles was playing directly on Torvald’s doubts about where Erik got the money to buy the Hart outright, and how Torvald never questioned it. “Why won’t he tell you, his only son, his heir, what he was doing all those years?” Torvald hadn’t released Giles, but the smaller boy was back on his feet, and now he leaned closer to Torvald on purpose. “Your father and mine don’t have much in common, Torvald,” Giles said, “but the biggest difference is that my father trusts me.” Torvald took a deep breath, then let go of Giles’ shirt. Cozen rubbed his neck and straightened his tunic.

 Torvald put both hands on the bar and leaned forward, long strands of blonde hair fell down over his eyes. “Get out of here, Giles,” he said without looking up. Giles glanced at Amelia, then Edward, but none of them spoke. The men who had been watching saw there wasn’t going to be a fight and went back to their conversations. “Just get out!” Torvald said more loudly. Edward saw the movement at the top of the stairs first, and turned to see Anna coming down, followed by Cyrus, then Solomon and Erik. The children tried to find something to do that didn’t look suspicious. Anna and Cyrus both walked straight through the hall and outside, as Giles picked up the wooden plate and then set the larger pieces of the broken mug on top of it. Erik came around behind the bar and Solomon walked up to stand beside Giles. “What’s going on here?” Solomon said, looking at his son, then Torvald with a frown.

 “Sorry, father,” Giles began, “I broke a mug. It was an accident, and I offered to pay for it.” Erik didn’t seem convinced by this any more than Solomon, but he looked at Giles and said gruffly, “If it was an accident, then don’t worry about it.”

 Solomon was anxious to leave. “Let’s be on our way, Giles.” Torvald kept polishing the bar and didn’t look up. Giles made eye contact with Edward and Amelia, then winked at her. She glared at him and looked away, exasperated and confused. Even though Giles provoked Torvald in the first place, she almost admired Giles for taking the blame and not ratting out Torvald. She shook her head and wondered what Cozen was playing at.

 As Solomon and Giles went out, Erik was sure something had happened that no one was talking about. “Everything all right?” he said, looking at all three of the children. Torvald nodded, but kept polishing the very clean bar; Amelia stood against the wall with her arms crossed. “We’re all fine, sir,” Edward said, and Erik nodded. He didn’t believe a word of this, but he had no time to deal with it.

 “Torvald,” Erik said sharply, and this time his son stopped what he was doing and looked up at his father, but not in the eyes. “I have to go talk to Nestor and a few others, so you’re in charge until I get back.”

 “Erik, sir?” Edward asked, resisting the urge to raise his hand. “What did you and the council decide, if you don’t mind me asking?”

 Erik crossed his arms and leaned against the bar. “I volunteered to lead a party to Watson Farm,” he said simply, “To see what can be done.”

 “A rescue party?” Torvald asked, his sullen mood forgotten.

“Collie went to have look,” Erik said. “As soon as he gets back, we’ll know if there’s anyone to save.”

Edward had the impression Watson Farm was some distance away, and he wondered how Collie would get there and back in time, and why he’s go alone, but he didn’t have a chance to ask before Torvald said, “Who’s going with you?”

 “I’m going to talk to Nestor now, and Isaac. There are a few others who swung a sword before they learned to farm. The blacksmith was a Navy man; he has a bad knee, though, and we’ll need to move fast to get there.”

 Torvald’s blue eyes got wide. “You’re going now?

 “It’s only noon, and near midsummer,” Erik said, filling his cup from the tap. “We can be there in five hours and still have daylight left.”

 “Only a couple of hours of light, at most,” Torvald said, sounding worried, “And that’s if all goes well on the way there.”

 Erik took a long drink from his cup. “It’s a risk, but if we don’t take it, any prisoners will have to spend another night with their captors.”

 “Why would vampires take prisoners?” Amelia asked, though she was afraid she wouldn’t like the answer.

 “Usually, only one reason,” Erik said flatly. “Keeping the next meal fresh.”

 Amelia closed her eyes and shuddered. “Sorry I asked,” she said.

 “Now, we’re dealing with a different kind of vampire, it seems,” Erik went on. Edward noticed that Erik seemed more relaxed and natural discussing this subject than he had seen before. “These vampires make plans, so they may have taken prisoners as bargaining chips.” Erik shrugged. “It doesn’t matter, because even if no one is left at the farm, we can’t let the vampires pollute the springs and establish a foothold.” He put down his cup and looked at Torvald, then the Lockhearts. “So we’ll go to Watson Farm, and we’ll do what we can.”

 “But father,” Torvald said his hand unconsciously touching the amulet around his neck, “What if it’s a trap?”

 Erik gave a humorless chuckle. “Never had to worry about vampire strategy before, but it probably is a trap, son.” He rubbed his square chin. “Still, I expect Collie’s report will remove that advantage.”

 In a flat voice, Torvald said, “It sounds like you’ve done all this before.” Erik looked at his son strangely for a moment, then said, “I have to go talk to Nestor. Solomon and Anna were going to put out a call for volunteers. If anyone comes looking for me, tell them to wait — I’ll be back soon.”

 “Yes, father.” Torvald replied. Erik took a step closer and lowered his voice slightly. “And if Collie gets back here before I do, ask him to find me right away.”

 Torvald nodded. “I will.” Erik put one hand on Torvald’s shoulder and gave it a quick squeeze.

 As Erik went out, Torvald went back to clearing the bar of their plates and cups. He didn’t seem in the mood for talking, and didn’t so much as look at either of the Lockhearts. Amelia leaned against a stool in the corner, also quiet and occupied with her own thoughts. When Torvald grabbed a small broom and dustpan and went around to the front of the bar to sweep up the bits of shattered mug, Edward followed him. “Hey, Torvald,” he said. “Yes,” Torvald said, not looking at him. “How is Collie going to get to Watson Farm and back soon enough to report to Erik today?” Torvald paused, but still didn’t speak. “I mean, isn’t Bradford’s Mill hours away from here?”

 “On horseback, yes,” Torvald replied.

 Edward wondered if he were missing something. He didn’t want to say anything stupid, but assuming that the alternatives were on foot or by boat, he didn’t see how either would make the round trip possible in a day. “And the alternative is…?”

 Torvald looked around to be sure that no one else was listening. “Flying,” he whispered.

 “Fly?” Edward did a mental back-flip. “Magic? Is Collie some kind of wizard?” In his excitement, Edward said it louder than he intended. Amelia looked up and started to walk over, and Torvald said, “Keep your voice down!” He stood up, then leaned closer to Edward. “Most people don’t know.”

 Edward’s eyebrows went up. “So, he is a wizard?”

 “No,” Torvald said, “A shapeshifter.”

 Edward’s smile vanished. “What’s wrong?” Amelia said as she came around the bar and noticed the change in Edward’s demeanor.

 “Collie’s a shapeshifter,” Edward said to his sister. His face was getting red.

 “Would you please stop saying that?” Torvald said, looking around the room again.

 “Oh!” Amelia said, “Edward, there must be some mistake. Why would Collie do that?”

 Torvald looked from Amelia to Edward and back again. “Why would he do what?” He sounded annoyed.

 “My pocket watch was stolen this morning,” Edward said, “by a shapeshifter.”

 Torvald squared his shoulders. “And you think it was Collie? He wouldn’t steal anything from you.”

 “How do you know?” Edward said, unconvinced and determined to hold his ground.

 Torvald bristled. “Collie is like a second father to me.” He leaned down so that he was almost eye-level with Edward, “He wouldn’t steal your pocket watch.” Amelia was worried. Torvald had almost dragged Giles out of the Hart when he called Erik a mercenary, and now Edward was implying that Torvald’s second father was  a thief. She didn’t like the side of Torvald she had just seen, and she was worried Edward might push too far. Amelia stepped between Torvald and Edward. “OK, you two, let’s just calm down.”

 Edward was painfully aware of the comical mismatch between him and Torvald. At least Giles was tall, but Edward was more than foot a shorter than the older boy. Edward couldn’t imagine being as imposing as Torvald, in three, or even thirteen years. That was bad enough, but when his older sister stepped in to save him, it was too much for Edward.

 “I don’t need you to protect me from your boyfriend, Em!” Edward said angrily.

 Amelia’s jaw dropped. “He’s not my boyfriend!” she sputtered, and wished she had phrased it differently, or, at least, not sounded so shrill. “And yes, you do need me!” she added.

 “No, you don’t!” Torvald shouted. Everyone in the hall was looking at them. “I wouldn’t hurt Edward!” Torvald’s voice dropped, and he brushed hair out of his eyes. “I wouldn’t hurt either of you.”

 All three of the children looked embarrassed. “God, there is way too much testosterone in this place,” she said, holding her head in both hands.

 “I don’t understand half of what you say,” Torvald said. He sounded tired.

 “That makes two of us, Torvald,” Edward said, then steered the conversation back to the original topic, “And I’m glad to know that you aren’t going to wipe the bar with me,” Edward pushed his glasses back up his nose, “but what about the watch?”

 As the half dozen customers waited for the answer, Torvald herded the Lockhearts back behind the bar, “Not out here — into the kitchen!”

 Torvald led Edward and Amelia through the doorway and into the kitchen. It was a relatively small room, shelves lined with olive oil, flour, and utensils, a brick oven on the back wall and a large table with a cutting board in the middle. Torvald stood by the door and kept looking out to be sure no one was approaching the bar. “Yes, Collie is a shapeshifter. That’s how he’s able to get to Watson Farm and back in a few hours, but most people don’t know it, even if they suspect something. Shapeshifters aren’t exactly welcome around here, or anywhere.”

 “You said shapeshifters, plural?” Edward asked. “So Collie’s not the only one around.” It was more of a realization, than a question.

 “No, of course not. Nobody really knows how many of them there are, but some of them are known. It’s hard to keep track of them, as you can imagine.”

 “Yes,” Edward said with a sigh. “I’m sure it is.” He shuffled his feet on the smooth stone floor for a moment, then looked at Torvald. “Listen, I’m sorry for jumping to conclusions about Collie. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that he might not be the only one.”

 “It’s all right,” Torvald said with a half-smile. “You’re new in town.”

 “You said shapeshifters aren’t welcome,” Amelia said. “Why not?”

 “Their abilities make people naturally suspicious that they’re spies, but they rarely work for anyone. They’re proud, and don’t generally like people very much. Collie is an exception in that regard. Anyway, they tend to do what they please, ignore laws, cause mischief. Sometimes, a lot worse,” Torvald paused and checked the bar again.

 “Worse how?” Edward prompted.

 “Well, in the Wizard Wars, about two hundred years ago, a few of the shapeshifters took sides with one or another of the wizards, and things got pretty messy. Things were bad enough with the wizards major and minor and their factions, but shapeshifters can take on any form, at least temporarily, depending on how powerful they are.”

 Edward had no trouble imagining how bad this could be, but his sister’s knowledge of fantastical creatures was a bit more limited. “You mean, like bears and elephants and things?”

 “Yes,” Torvald said, “For starters. Also, trolls, giants, dragons, sea serpents…”

 “I get the idea,”Amelia said, trying to imagine Collie as a T-Rex, which gave her an idea. “Well, why doesn’t Collie just go in there and clean house, or, in this case, clean barn?” She waited for a reaction, and got a groan from Edward.

 “True — it wouldn’t be hard for a dragon to destroy a nest of vampires,” Torvald conceded, “but not without destroying the barn, too. Shapeshifters aren’t known for self-control in their transformations. They tend to take on the characteristics of their transformed shapes. In the Wizard Wars, they were almost as dangerous to their own side as the enemy.”

 Nothing is ever simple around here, Amelia thought.

 Edward had been quietly taking all this in and tugging on his lower lip. Now he looked up at Torvald. “So, with all this in mind, who would a shapeshifter want my pocket watch?”

 “Sorry, Edward, but I have no idea.” Torvald hesitated. “Unless — was this watch magical? Shapeshifters are naturally attracted to magical items.”

 “Well, we don’t really have magic like that where we’re from,” Edward replied, glancing at Amelia. “but that is a very interesting question.”

 

~ ~ ~

 

Nestor agreed to go to Watson Farm  with Erik before he even finished asking. It took much longer to convince Ralph why he couldn’t come with them. He and Nestor finally got Ralph to concede that he was the only member of the Watch with anywhere close to Nestor’s experience. Also, with his keen eyesight, Ralph was probably the best person to use the sun-sphere, Nestor included.

 By the time Erik and Nestor got back to the Hart, there were half a dozen volunteers waiting for him in the hall. As Erik expected, Isaac, formerly of the Rangers and a relief member of the Watch, was there, along with Inigo the Smith, a Navy man in his younger days, and a handful of inexperienced, but eager young men. Nestor was a slave who won his freedom fighting for one of the eastern Pashas. Like Erik, he didn’t talk much about that part of his past, but Erik had seen Nestor’s fighting skills first-hand in more than one vampire attack, and he was glad the guard would be with him.

“There’s a crew,” Erik said to Nestor as they stood just inside the entrance, surveying the room. Nestor chuckled. “It’s a good mix of the old and the inexperienced,” he said, and Erik almost laughed out loud. “Do me a favor, Nestor,” he said, his hand on Nestor’s shoulder, “Just mingle among this lot and find out who we should send home now.” Nestor nodded, “That I will.”

“I’ll get some maps from my room and when I get back, we’ll see who makes the cut.” As Erik passed the bar, Torvald was standing near the kitchen door, and he could see Edward and Amelia in the kitchen, talking quietly. Erik knew it wasn’t any of his business, but he couldn’t help trying to hear their conversation as he approached. His hearing wasn’t as good as it used to be, and the hall was noisy, so the only word he could pick out was “watch.” Torvald still looked angry. Erik knew something had happened between him, the Lockhearts and Giles Cozen, but that would have to wait. Erik leaned over the bar and Torvald stepped up quickly. “Collie?” Torvald shook his head. “No sign of him yet.”

Erik nodded, continued around the bar to the rooms in the back of the Hart where he and Torvald lived. Collie had been gone less than two bells, barely time to get to Watson Farm and back, so there was no reason to worry. Collie could handle himself; he had been in much worse situations. Though not in a long time, Erik thought. He quickly dismissed the concern; he and Collie had often aided the Watch during the attacks of the past few months, and they were a bit rusty, but they weren’t over the hill, by any means.

Erik reached his room, opened the door and went past the simple bed, table and chairs to another locked door on the far wall. Erik selected an iron key from the ring attached to his belt and unlocked the door to a small room with one window high up on the wall. The room was dominated by a large cabinet of dark wood with brass hinges. Erik stood quietly in front of the cabinet, as if listening, then opened the lock with another small key and swung the heavy doors open.

Erik had once promised his wife that he would get rid of these weapons. Instead, he had given them to Collie for safe-keeping. The blades hung in their scabbards, some ornate, some plain and worn. He hadn’t used any of them in at least eighteen years, since he met Helena and settled down. After all that time, as Erik looked at each weapon, he could remember how each felt in his grasp, and how it felt to use it. Erik put out his hand, stopped, and then took down the longest sword from the hook where it hung vertically from the guard. Erik’s pulse quickened as he pulled the blade loose from the scabbard and slid the sword out less than half its length. Colored flames began to curl along the gleaming surface, flickering over the runes engraved the length of the blade. Erik sheathed the sword carefully and hung it up again. Snow-point was a majestic weapon, the finest sword he had ever seen and his greatest prize — he’d killed a dragon to get it — but it wasn’t a good choice for a close fight in a barn. Erik touched the hilts of two other swords, Whistler and Dervish, and then settled on one of the shorter blades, Black Molly.

Even when he went to track down Helena’s killers, Erik took only his father’s sword, an ordinary length of Norse steel. It had seemed wrong to avenge his wife with one of the weapons she had pleaded with him to give up. Eventually, Erik admitted to himself that Helena would never have wanted vengeance. No, the revenge was for him, but it didn’t diminish his guilt in the least. Even after all these years, taking up a weapon from his adventuring days still felt like betraying his wife. But this time, maybe for the first time, Erik Magnusson wouldn’t be wielding a spellbound blade for his own greed and glory. He’d be doing it for the people at Watson Farm, for Nestor and his fellow Westerings, and for Torvald.

“And if I’m damned, after all,” Erik said to the sheathed sword. “May as well do it right, eh, Molly?”

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