Chapters:

1 : Resignation

A piebald cream and white gelding glided into the sleeping town of Jefferson as the moon cradled itself into a thick patch of clouds. A rumble of distant thunder sang a farewell to the humid mist the clouds had left behind, with the soaked and empty streets left quiet from the rain. There was no sound save the hooves of this horse, whose rider sat quietly in the saddle. The horse knew where to go without much prodding, and soon the rider left off the seat and the saddle off the horse.A light brush of straw, a bit and bridle removed, and the gelding was set for the night.

The sounds of armored riding boots clinked in the street as the rider walked back through the street. In the moonlight, if there were any witness, they would see a woman in a dark blue frock coat, dark trousers tucked into her knee high boots, wearing a narrow brimmed slouch hat. A cold iron star glimmered in the moonlight on the hat she wore. Her two cherry grip .45s were hung tight to her belt, tied down and secured. She approached a large, well lit, bustling stick built shack called The Shanty, quickly came upon the boardwalk and entered through the swinging doors.

Inside was a hive of activity. There was a long counter, at which sat a full row of patrons, with a second row clamoring for drinks and trade. It was Silver Night in Jefferson, when prospectors from the nearby Blue Cap Mountains came down to trade their silver for bullets, food, lodging, and all other assortments. This was one of only a few places to acquire the economy to do trade, being one of only a few places in Jefferson to hold a hefty stock of both goods and bank rolls.

The rider entered and approached the counter, removed her hat, and sat in a stool that cleared away just as she approached. She quietly removed two empty .45 shells from her belt and placed them on the counter, and soon enough two brimmed and skimmed shots of clear Spirit was set in front of her. She cleared both glasses, one after the other, swallowing with a grimace and wiped her mouth. All around her she could hear conversation. There was mention of her, not by name, but by the iron star on her hat, and question as to her motives. Once she knocked back the two burners, most of that conversation stopped.

There would be no trouble tonight, for if there was to be, it would’ve already presented its ugly head. She followed some of the crowd’s chatter, listening to a rumor circulate through the shanty of a new prospector on the Blue Caps that had opened up a virgin mine ripe with silver. It was most likely false, as most reliable reports of the Blue Caps show that the Silver Rush in the Eastern Cap Valley was just about dried up. A push west was any day now, with the wisest prospectors already making the trek across Narrow Ridge. Another claim that met mostly with wild laughter and the shaking of heads, was the witness of a white yeti near one of the old abandoned shafts at Narrow Ridge, a dried up string of mines at the summit of the Blue Cap Range. This was also likely just a myth, started by one of the prospectors leaving the valley in anticipation of a bust and trying to intimidate any greenhorn attempting to do the same.

Marshal Cora Montgomery contemplated taking another shot off her belt and setting it on the counter, but she asked for water instead. She sipped first, tasting no sand or alkali, she drank her full. It was hit or miss in this shanty whether they had a good barrel of Blue Cap Spring or not. Sometimes she wondered if the proprietor ran the empty barrels into the creek 50 yards out back and filled them up, they way some of the water tasted. The Shanty was a center of town in many respects, sharing a boardwalk with the barber and telegram’s office, with doors intersecting the three establishments. She had been assigned Jefferson as her first tour as Marshall years before, and since the war with the Western Freefolk and the Andurien Empire had seen its peak and the dust cleared out, she had no assignments other than to stay. This was less than satisfactory, as Jefferson was no place for a free ranger nor Imperial to call home. It was a boomtown gone bust, with prospector stores boarded and empty, and more empty hotels and run down saloons than water troughs. The only folk that still called this place a home were the ones holding out hope that silver still lay deep in the range that overlooked Jefferson like a sleeping shadow.

She leaned on the counter, feeling her resignation papers in her vest pocket crinkle. With the war over, there didn’t seem to be a need for her kind anymore, and she had saved a sizeable amount of her money to go back home. She had not seen nor set foot on the great Western Dust in more than a decade. Cora was a freefolk herself coming from deep in the western wastes, though she left that life to join the Imperial riders when she was old enough to hold her own with a gun and a saddle. It was young pride and the sense of duty to her father that led her to leave in the first place.

Their ranch had seen a fair bit of rustlers when she was still there, and her father was running short of tough hands to keep the thieves from coming. Her mother had died some years before, when Cora was very young, and her father had not recovered from his grief. The ranch was failing, and Cora took it upon herself to see to it that it didn’t. She rode to the train station in the dead of night and telegraphed the marshals in the nearby settlement and they came for her the next morning. It was quicker than she had anticipated, but she wasn’t surprised. A young kit of Wild Bill Montgomery was worth her salt and boots in a saddle, as well as behind the stock of a good rifle. She just wished they had given her time to explain that to her father, to explain why she was leaving, to explain what she intended. What she believed would help. Instead she left him standing on the front porch of their ranch house, alone and head shaking.

She had received telegrams from him while she was in training, but they stopped after the war with the freefolk began. She sent him half, and sometimes all, of her earnings from her station to try to help with the ranch. It wasn’t until last week, when she returned from a long patrol near the Andurien River, did she find that one of her packages was returned. It had eaten away at her like a termite dead set on finding the heartwood. Had he finally given up on her return? Had he disavowed her because of the war? He had stopped writing, stopped sending telegraphs, and now stopped accepting her money. Perhaps the ranch was doing well, she thought. Perhaps he had secured enough hands to control the rustlers and was set on restoring the place to its former glory. Perhaps, she had thought; and she had waited a full week in anticipation of a letter, a telegram, something telling her that she could come home. No letter, telegram, nor any message of any kind had come.

So she wrote a letter of her own.

When she received news that the magic fires had burned the prairie lands as far west as the Andurien River, she knew that the war was not going to spell a victory for either side. The freefolk magi and the Andurien commander met on a barge out in the middle of the river to sign what was to be known as the Freefolk Andurien Accord, a peace treaty to swear that no man, woman, nor beast of Imperial intent would cross the river without being subject to freefolk law. It was then she knew that she would never set foot on her father’s ranch again unless her iron star was left behind, and she crossed the river like a naked newborn babe. She had waited a week, but tomorrow she would leave Jefferson, the Empire, and her fool’s errand behind.

That was the plan, until she heard the heavy boots clamoring on the boardwalk outside. The sounds of heavy jingling spurs, the well practiced, uniform steps. It was the Empire. Before the door even creaked open, The Shanty was deadly silent. Most of the other patrons made for the doors of the telegram office and barber, and out into the night. A posse of marshals left only blood and iron in their wake. The door swung open, and Cora could hear it creaking in protest. She decided that now would be a wonderful time to put another .45 shell on the counter and take a third shot.

“Marshal Montgomery,” A voice behind her spat, one that she recognized as superior Imperial Range Sergeant, George Fortune, “a Marshal doesn’t drink on the job.”

Cora sucked in a chuckle and placed the shot glass back on the counter. She was swimming in good feeling now, but she could still hold a good bit more. “You boys sure do know how to arrive at just the right time.” She replied.

“We spotted your horse by the livery.” One of the greenhorns started to say, “Cutter is forming the militia again, we’re to--­”

“Let’s not air out our gizzards in the Shanty, Marshall Cornwall,” Fortune cut in, “the Empire is calling for all Marshalls to report to Fort Benthir by morning.”

Cora had managed to stand, turning to face the large group that had gathered. Fort Benthir was known to collect failed prospectors from Jefferson, signing up after leaving dried up silver mines in the Blue Caps. There was no shortage of troops in this town, that was for certain, and it seemed that every one of them had assembled on the boardwalk behind Sergeant Fortune like a band of lost children. They craned their necks around the doorway and into the windows to see what was going on, some of them entering from the two side establishments. She would’ve counted nearly twenty strong if she had the inclination to do so.

“I resigned.” Cora spat, putting her letter on the counter and moving towards Fortune and the exit. He did not give way. One more step and she would’ve been against his chest. He smelled of sweet brandy and tobacco.

“I do not accept. Formal resignation can wait.” Cora scowled. He was in true form with so many half­-cocked, trigger happy, blue coats standing behind him; even more than usual. Fortune was a man of strict adherence to the law, not because he believed it was morally in his good character to do so, but because that adherence granted him any amount of true and unquestioning power in his position. It was rumored that Fortune had used his station to take advantage of numerous women in town, most of them were native savages, some just settlers passing through. She heard lots of things, but that was one rumor that would not go out of her mind.

“I don’t give two shits about formal resignations. You can take my letter and do with it as you see fit. You can have my star as well. I ride out tomorrow, and not with any of you.” She answered.

“That’s a shame.” Fortune began, “abandoning your post in a time of war is considered a crime, Marshal Montgomery.”

Cora raised her eyebrow. “War’s over, Fortune.” To that he only shook his head and answered, “You can either come with your ass in the saddle, or tied up and dangling over the sides. Either way is fine with me.”

To that the other spit­shooters laughed, exchanging glances at each other while Fortune and Cora exchanged words. She narrowed her eyes and cursed, looking back to see that even the barkeep had cleared the bar and left the Shanty empty to the party. She didn’t have much more room to protest unless she wanted to be in shackles. “I go, but I’m leaving Fort Benthir without my star. I guarantee you that.”

Fortune shrugged, “Hell, if what everyone is saying is true, we all might be leaving Fort Benthir with an undertaker’s wagon following close behind.”

“What in hell­fire are you talkin about?” Cora shouted. Fortune’s voice got quiet, and he stepped close to Cora. His breath smelled of cheap tobacco and thick sweet wine. He got close enough to touch her cheek with his breath, and Cora imagined that was how he liked it. “Word is that the Empire’s trying another push out west. Nobody knows why.”

Cora looked back behind Fortune, watching as the other men made faces and jeered at Fortune and Montgomery’s proximity. Cora knew there was a rumor spread that she “didn’t have a belt” on her trousers for Fortune and his two chief riders, but there wasn’t much to be done besides trying not to feed into it. The harder you are, the more people talk about how soft your underbelly must be. She stepped back, finding herself almost against the counter, another position she did not want to be backed into. She sidestepped and headed past Fortune towards the door, the way clearing by the weaker brand of blue coats. Cora may not have been sargeant, but she was well known in the Marshalls.

“I’ll not ride on Andurien River, nor any step past Pebble Rock.” Cora replied, “we have an Accord.”

“The Empire doesn’t forget that,” Fortune began, “They also don’t forget the fact that you passed through your momma’s loins as a freefolk yourself, Montgomery.” His words made her boil. She turned in the doorway, ready to let her two pistols sing. Fortune was good at bringing out the fire in people, but she knew that a thumb on the hammer would prove bloody for her. “The Empire remembers that ​little fact ​very well...”

Cora left The Shanty and headed straight for the Livery. Her gelding and her would leave tonight, riding separate from the rest of the pack. The air wasn’t too cold for her horse, Lemon, and Cora would take sleeping on a rock over having to stay in the same town as Sergeant Fortune any day of the week. Lemon protested as Cora saddled her back up, but a few brushes of her mane and soft whispers and apologies, they were setting off. As she rode past The Shanty, she could see the sea of blue frock coats hadn’t left, and had found the barkeep in the back as well. Tomorrow, The Shanty’s store would be bareboned from Fortune’s pillaging.

Cora rode slow on the road for two silent hours before she found a good outcrop of wild wheat grass and some sage brush to leave Lemon tied to. Satisfied with her hold­up, she settled next to a rock and built a fire. The Andurien Frontier was silent at night, as it almost always was. The Empire had done well to protect and nurture the land it used. In the Empire, magic was restricted, and many folk living under Imperial law were taught to fear it. That didn’t stop the Empire from using the mysterious talents of those with the strange gift for spells, however. Red Magi, the ones with magic talent in service to the Empire, had different skills and talents based on how they learned their craft, but most of the ones taught by the Empire were the Red Priests, casting spells to bend the will of the land to suit those who stood on top of it.

Though nature did a good job looking after itself, it was these Magi that kept the land looking after the Empire. No man, woman, or child willing to give their life in service to the Empire would ever know hunger. That was made sure by patrols of Magi, dispensing vast amounts of power to a dry field or to an uninhabitable swamp. For all the green that abounded, there was a scarcity of the creatures that would have called it home.

She woke the next morning early to the sound of a passing horse drawn carriage travelling at a steady trot. Bouncing in the driver’s seat was a slender looking elf dressed in a duster and slim brimmed hat. She recognized the driver as Averis the coachman, taking travellers from Fort Benthir to Jefferson and south to Port Palmyros. A good 60 mile trip, and a decent pay for Averis if he had enough people to sit in the box. He kept a clean wagon, and had an unnatural way of bending wood to keep his wagon’s wheels strong.

It was early morning, and for that Cora was thankful. The last thing she wanted was Sergeant Fortune coming upon her on the road while she was still sleeping. She gathered her things, threw her frock coat back on and checked on Lemon, who had eaten some of the sage and chewed a bit of the grass in the night. They were on the road again towards Fort Benthir, and at the gates by noon.

Fort Benthir served to patrol the settlements up and down the Blue Cap Range. As result, it could outfit a large number of Marshals and soldiers. As she came up on a rise in the road, she stopped to get a good look at what was going on. There was a railroad track that entered Fort Bendir from the east, and exited the Fort’s depot on the South Eastern wall. Both entrances had large doors that could be locked and secured in a siege, but were left open now as a train entered from the northeast. From what she could see, a good amount of arms and supplies were being delivered. Fortune was right, or at least right about the Empire mounting a supply operation in preparation of something.

While she sat in her saddle atop a narrow ridge, she observed three riders come out of the from gates at Fort Benthir, turn south and head towards her at a fast approach. When they saw her iron star, they slowed to a stop. The horses she recognized, but the riders were fresh. All three of them were dwarves, stout and proud in their dark blue frock coats and newly minted hats. These were militiamen turned Marshals, a memory from the beginning of the war she thought of all too clearly. Fortune’s nonsense was starting to check out.

“Howdy.” One of the three spoke, a dwarf with a bald head and a large brown beard. His eyebrows grew wild, and his eyes were emerald green. He grinned widely, and sported a short double barrelled shotgun with a handmade pistol grip. He had his service pistol on a belt across his chest, and a long rifle in the saddle as well. This man was well armed, with confidence as well as cold iron. “You headed in to Fort Benthir? They’re handing out assignments to Marshals as soon as they arrive.”

“I see.” Cora replied, furrowing her brow, “How long have you been running this outfit?” She asked, looking at their polished black leather riding boots.

“Us three? We come from the Greyhall Company, out near Boulder Pass.”

“Militiamen turned Marshal then?” Cora confirmed, they nodded, she tried not to roll her eyes.

“Where they sending you?” Cora asked.

One of the dwarves flanking the bald one spoke, “Down the southern Blue Cap pass, then west to Rickett’s Quay.”

“You’re crossing the Andurien River?” Cora posed, knowing the answer now, as Fortune had told her. One of the few times he had told the truth.

“Aye, we are. And so are you, we suspect. The Empire’s set it up with the Freefolk for us to be the law out West, to help clear out those who fled the war for nefarious reasons, as well as clear up the lawlessness that’s pervaded there.”

“Seems strange that the folk we’ve been shooting at want us to cross the river and watch over their neighborhoods.” Cora replied; she looked down at Benthir, watching the commotion that was churning inside.

“Powel here said the same thing. Doesn’t make much sense, but I think there’s more to it than what they’re lettin’ on.”

“Smart man.” Cora sighed, “You’ll do well to remember that when you cross the river. That’s assuming the freefolk don’t haul off and shoot you as soon as you get there.”

She guessed that all three of these dwarves were brothers. One of them had no weapons, but wore fine silk gloves and a hood. His beard was shorter than the other two, and did not speak. He was magi. Cora’s hair stood up on the back of her neck as she locked eyes with him, and she looked back towards the other two.

“How many are there in the Fort now?” Cora asked, trying to brush off the crawling feeling she had.

“Scores,” the bald one responded, “Mostly enlisted men and women like yourself, but some more of the Greybeard Company have come out to see what the call to arms was about. There’s a few other companies as well, the Sharps, the Red Regan Boys, the 108 and 23rd infantry of course, and a few others I didn’t recognize.”

Cora tried not to look as discomforted as she felt. This would most certainly spell more conflict, though the reason she could not be certain. The dwarves were naive to believe that they were made Marshals so that the Empire could play sheriff to the beatnik wasteland. There was something else afoot. The Freefolk and Andurien Empire clashed the first time because Andurien sought to break the freefolk like a colt under Andurien law. The newly settled west had become, and still was, a relatively lawless countryside. Those who wanted law made it for themselves, and made their own success as well. It was a different way of life than that of Andurien, where the Empire had the resources to look after its own without the need for homegrown militias and quick drawing ranch hands. The Empire had an army, and Marshals, with a law of the land that was unchanged wherever you went. The problem was that anytime trouble brewed, it fled to the west to fester, and returned stronger than before.

Andurien looked at the west as a trained Magi might look at an eager scribe. The Empire understood what kind of power the West could harness, and what kind of force the untamed wilderness could reap if ever the Westerners decided to turn their sights on the Empire back east. When the West had found natural magic, and started to learn from the native savages how to harness its power, the Empire tried to seize the opportunity from the Freefolk and destroy all native’s knowledge of Magic. That meant blood. The savages that agreed to meet with the freefolk fled back to obscurity, and their secrets were lost as well. Relations soon deteriorated between east and west after that, and war was whispered on the lips of many a man with the gall to join in. It did not take much after that before war on the range broke out like a fire in a haystack. The Andurien Empire tried to quell the western forces with little more than cold iron and horses, but the westerners had savage magic, and lead bullets did little to stop their advances. It wasn’t until the Red Magi from across the sea were called, led by the Marshals, who crossed the Andurien River and broke the back of the western forces.

Cora stayed on a rear advance, witnessing more destruction with every scorched step the Empire took into the untamed western countryside. She saw the small ranch towns and settlements laid bare, with the story of their hold up always the same. First came the scorched fields and carcasses of the advancing town militia. The bodies of the riders were never there. Was it carrion and wolf or surviving settlers that carried them away she would never witness, but the dead horses always heralded the approach of another loss for the west. The approach on a settlement was little compared to the actual town itself, laid bare by the Red Magi that passed before. The stick framed stores and houses were always burned and charred to ash, with the inhabitants sometimes piled at the doorway, fighting to escape and dying as they clamored out of the door. Other times the settlers were lined up in the center of town and cut down. Rarely, they were arrested. Their horses survived, of the ones that could be kept, and taken back to the rear guard. That was Cora’s main duty, before becoming a Marshal.

She was to clean and inspect each horse, check for sickness, nourish the weak and break ­in the strong. Not much needed to be done on the ones that could hold a rider, except break them in to the use of magic. After a few sleepless nights of braying and stomping, the horses mostly calmed down and got used to the Empire’s use of magic to grow their feed. There were some that resisted to the very end, never touching the golden corn or the soft hay; starving there in the stocks. The Empire left them as they advanced, a trail of skeletons and scorched earth as they prodded on.

It was her father’s letters that saved her. She had kept the ones he had written her before the war began, and read them to herself in her pitch­tent every night while the wails of dying soldiers carried through the night. His words were an elixir to her sleepless nights. It was purifying to read about the golden seas of wheat grass on the untouched prairie lands; swaying in waves that whispered of summer as the wind kissed the dry grass of home. He wrote to her about the animals that still laid their head in the prairie without fear of magic driving them away. Cora remembered that, all too well. She was old enough to remember the grazing of wild deer and the shadows of gliding carrion overhead. She remembered the sounds of crickets singing in the springs, and frogs stretching out their lungs in the hot summer nights. She missed that loud chorus more than anything when she had laid awake in her apartment back in Jefferson, where the only sounds she could hear were the out of tune twangs of the Shanty’s old piano and the occasional boisterous laughter from some drunk miner high on the hog with a pocket full of silver.

The war ended one late summer’s eve on the march west; the Red Magi were seen walking, in a large mass back towards the rear guard. They continued, reaching the Andurien River as word had it, and crossed it. They returned to their ships, some hundred miles away, and set sail back to the Empire across the sea as if called by some supernatural headwind. The front advance returned a days hoof later, telling of a mysterious force that met the Red Magi in the prairie lands between settlements. From what Cora could tell, whatever this force was, it met them two days ride from her father’s settlement and the O’Tally Ranch. The Accord was signed two weeks later. She was made Marshal on the return journey, for her service to the Empire providing healthy hoof to the patrols and her service in the numerous hunts she led to feed the return company.

When she recieved her iron star, she had still felt somewhat proud. Knowing that the station granted more pay, and that pay would see its way her father, she felt vindicated in the thought that she had saved her father’s ranch, and she could go home.

She looked at Fort Benthir with an empty feeling. There was no life left in the Empire, other than the empty husks that moved the cogs of its ever creeping industry. There was no doubt that the Empire would endure; in this folly, or the next. The Accord was, as Cora had rightly assumed, just a play to keep the Empire above water. She also assumed, with a tight knot in her gut, that she would not be permitted to leave under any circumstance.

She thought of her possibilities while leading her horse down the gentle ridge towards the gates. She might be assigned to her father’s area, St. Deltana, convince him to jump the wagon and abandon the idea of standing up against the Empire. She knew what that brought. She imagined entering her father’s ranch with her blue frock coat and iron star. She’s be shot and tied, thrown out on the street, and dragged most likely. It was dangerous to assume there was a warm welcome at O’Tally’s Ranch, or from St. Deltana.

She entered St. Benthir with a sigh of bittersweet relief. Everywhere she looked there were arms and equipment set for war, but for every instrument of destruction, there wasn’t a single Red Magi. Sure, there were initiates, like the Greybeard going down to Rickett’s, but the best he could do is fire off a few spurts of energy before getting shot down in a shower of lead. Red Magi were a different breed. If Cora had the right mind, she’d assume that the Empire might hold out for sending to them again because of their abandoning the push last time. Pride, no matter what side your on, gets you killed. This spelled good news for the Westerners if she was right. They might actually stand more than a goose’s chance in a fox den at least.

Fort Benthir was constructed out of sandstone, mud brick, thatched roof and iron spike. It wouldn’t stand up to a canon, but its position offered little chance for one to approach unless the lead shells came down in mortar strikes, which were hard to mount without being over run by a company of fast riders on horseback. It was congested with activity inside the courtyard, with recruits lining up to receive their first week’s penny pay, ration, and boots, as well as the loading of carts for what looked to be a large convoy about to embark. Fort Benthir would be deserted come noon tomorrow.

“Montgomery!” Someone called from the balcony of the kitchen after she came through the stable doors. She spotted a familiar face, one that was refreshing in the rank and file Marshals she passed on the ground. A gentle faced, cool blue eyed Marshal called to her. It was Marshal Tim Bates, “Wild Fire” Bates to most in the company.

“Hey, Wild Fire!” She called back. She put a dusty boot on the bottom rung of the stairs leading to the second story, and leaned against the railing, “What’s going on?”

Bates smiled and laughed, coming down a few steps so that he wasn’t shouting “Commander Harken’s on the move.” Harken was boss of the Fort, leader of the Jefferson outfit, and chief Marshal in the Blue Cap Valley, “Fort Benthir’s been sold.”

Cora took her boot off the stair and raised her eyebrow, “Really?”

Marshal Bates laughed as well, shaking his head, “I don’t know the specifics, all I know is that there’s interest in the railway here, and the Empire has stepped aside.”

Of the 12 years Cora Montgomery had worked as footman, horse master or marshal, she had never heard of the Empire ​stepping aside​. The Empire moving Marshals West to break the Accord, and moving Benthir because of a buy­out just didn’t sit right. Even for Andurien.

“So where’s the convoy going?” Cora asked, after a moment of watching the footmen load a few carts. Wild Fire had come the full way down the steps and leaned against the wall behind Cora. She turned, expecting to see him at the top of the stairs. He was quiet when he wanted to be, sometimes without even trying.

“They’re splitting it. The footmen are headed to Jefferson to set up a garrison out of two of the prospector hotels. The Fort Benthir Marshals will hold out in Blue Gap, at the old Iron Fork.”

The Iron Fork was an abandoned fortress built by the old native savages that held this land for centuries. Masters of bending iron much like the Red Magi and their priests were at bending wood, the savages took to making a fortress made out of the cold iron that ran like rivers in the mountain. Blending it with stone, it marvelled even the Greybeard’s knowledge of stonework and crafting. It resided in a narrow pass between two of the Blue Cap mountains, and protruded from the face of one of the mountains in three directions, forming a bent pitchfork. The fortress was used as a prospector station and depot after the savages were cleared out. It had a long deep seeded history with the land, there was no denying; entering the halls felt like stepping out of her very flesh, and everything she touched was ice cold.

“What is it?” Wild Fire spoke. Cora was thinking again of the letter she left on the counter in Jefferson. Sergeant Fortune would no doubt be taking it to Benthir on his approach, and once it was in Harkin’s hands there was no telling what might happen.

“We’re going out West, then?” Cora said, turning and leaning against the railing. A footmen passed them and headed up the stairs with an empty sack to retrieve more supplies.

Wild Fire Bates looked at her with squinted eyes from the sun. He licked his dry lips and considered Cora for a moment. She must’ve found out from Fortune, or one of his other riders, that the ride West was happening, which said to Bates that Fortune might not have been careful with that information with other people as well. Not that anyone had been directed to be secretive, but showing ones hand before all the chips are laid out of the table is foolish. This whole situation had him squirming in the stirrups. What with Benthir being sold, the fort splitting its hand, and the Marshals moving out west, he didn’t really know where he’d be once the dust settled. He thought he was done with having the weight of his holsters in his saddle. He thought he was done with war.

“Yeah. We ride west.” He said quietly. “Though, the public word is that we’re riding to the Iron. Once there, we make for the Quay or pass that for Piper’s Ferry.” He kicked his boot in the dirt, and pulled on his gun belt, “I want you with me when I cross Andurien.” Wild Fire admitted. Cora’s eyes flared, flicking between Bates and the footmen who came back down the stairs with a sack filled with food.

“I’m not passing Pebble Rock.” Cora said, defiant. Not with her Iron Star at least, “We struck an Accord with the freefolk, Bates. I don’t know why everyone keeps trying to make like that’s been forgotten.”

“No one held much stock in that damn Accord, Cora. Not even the freefolk trust what we signed on that river.” Bates shot back.

“Well, I was raised in those prairies, Bates. I was raised that you don’t go killing promises just because you can. If the freefolk knew it would bring more riders, they’d’ve run us off with their barrels barkin’. You know it.” Cora returned. Wild Fire Bates stared at her for a moment, looking at those piercing green emerald eyes.

He sighed and looked away, “You ​know it.” Cora repeated. “Don’t buy the lie that the West is just waiting to fight us again. A man doesn’t settle in the middle of nowhere because he’s looking to spill some blood. He’s looking to be left ​alone​.”

Bates needed her in his company. She was clearheaded, honest, and knew the west better than any of the greenhorns left in the fort. She was as valuable as she was volatile; like a tank of glycerine ready to break over the fire. Bringing her with him was risking her breaking for the freefolk and putting a bullet in his head, but the way she looked at him said different. Or at least he hoped.

Cora fumed. She had grown to trust Bates on their patrols together back when she was footman, riding outlaws out of town or pushing stray cattle back to range. He was an honest man who never put on errs with her. She never saw him look at her with a man’s eye, or talk to her like she was someone to be courted. Now, she could see he was trying to court her; not to bed, but to war. He was hungry to go back, for what she hadn’t a clue, but it wasn’t peaceful eyes she was looking at. Or honest. There was something he was hiding. She wasn’t about to take a bullet in the back from a freefolk settler to find out what it was, either.

Cora stepped away and faded through the crowd of footmen. If the Marshals were to return to the West, she would go on her own or with greenhorn that she could slip away from. She might just be able to stage a scene to make it look like she was lost to the wilds, leave a bloodstained kerchief in the brush in the middle of the night and tear up the trail a bit to make it look like a silent scuffle. She couldn’t do that with Wild Fire. He’d see her horse gone and follow her tracks. That man was a vicious hunter who made most of his money before enlisting hunting bail jumpers and convicts.

Perhaps she would wait for Fortune to return, turn in with his men and fade out on the trail when they got moving. It would mean putting up with Fortune’s dry gummed advances and the greenhorn’s rumors for a few nights, but as soon as they were clear of Andurien River she could easily fade into the wilds without Fortune being able to track. He couldn’t track a hog’s hoof in four inches of pig shit. She weighed her options as she approached the foreman’s office, hearing the strong booming voice of commander Harken through the large oaken door. An elf with a clean tan footmen’s coat opened the door for her and she removed her slouch hat. Inside she saw Harken talking with two well decorated officials from the Imperial Army. The office was long and narrow, with the door opening in the center of the room on one of the longer sides of the wall. Harken and the two officials sat at Harken’s desk at the far left. Cora walked right, waiting at the table that had been set out with food for Harken’s lunch. There was far too much for him to eat, so Cora helped herself to a few vittles.

“Our newly minted Marshals will see to it that the transition runs as smoothly as possible...” Harken said, stealing a firm and cold glance at Cora.

“Certainly, Harken! Certainly! This move was right for the force anyhow. Benthir’s ​old. It’s high time we made for better grounds than this fort, and the Iron is the best we can think of!” Said one of the other officials.

“Of course.” Harken opened his mouth to say more, but seeing Cora, he refrained. She was a loyal Marshal, to be sure, but she was also freefolk blood. Blood is thick, as they say. He hoped to keep her on patrol, being as how she’s from the West, but as soon as she found out what was really going on, she would need to be put down. The two officials were from Harken’s command, General Lee and Major Thompson of the Imperial Army. Though in station he was higher than Thompson, the sniveling toe­razor served under the branch that controlled the Marshals. For that, Harken had to give him his due while he was wearing his uniform. Though it wasn’t beneath Harken for taking Thompson in a game of cards after a heavy night of watching him ham­fist shots of bourbon.

Lee was an older man, wise in his years, having seen the Great War of the South with the savages and led an army through the savage infested Blue Cap Valley. He wore his uniform with an old fashion degree of respect, and rode his horse as if he was at show. A stiff back and a clean stiff arm at his breast, he rode his horse into battle with pride and bravery that struck fear into those who dared raise a barrel at his approach. It was said he stood against three men in the Blue Cap Valley armed with savage throwing axes and bow and never strayed from his approach. He rode upon them, fired his 6 rounds into their armored chests without suffering a wound. Every axe and arrow missed their target without Lee so much as flinching. It was well known that he did not fear death.

Thompson was nothing more than a paper­boy with a cold iron pistol on his belt. Harken would suspect it was clean, though so was his kerchief, having never fired the damned thing to warrant more than a dusting off on occasion. He was large from sitting behind mohogany more than sitting in a saddle, and hated the oppressive heat of the sun. In his long service in the Marshal’s outfit, he had never seen Thompson lift a finger to set, clean or clear a camp. Most of the time he would show up late, disappear during feedings of the horses and mucking the runs, and leave a day early before camp was cleared. It was no wonder that he was in Harken’s office instead of directing the men outside in the heat, though he was still dripping sweat and stinking like a wet rat while sitting inside.

Cora snacked as the officials made their goodbyes and stood. Harken finished his farewells and shook hands before seeing them to the door. When the door closed, he spoke.

“You’re riding west. Take Wild Fire with you, and two more. I give you free reign on your choice but tell me before you leave.” Harken commanded. He turned to go back to his desk and start clearing it out. He had made a trek to the Iron Fork weeks before and secured a decent lodging in the keep. He intended to get there before any administrative decisions deprived him of a comfortable stay. Cora had not turned to leave. “Are you hungry, Marshal?” He asked indignantly. He watched as she put another piece of roast fowl in her mouth before she approached.

“We riding to war, then? Breaking the Freefolk Accord?” Her question fell on Harken and his lips thinned into a white line. His tired eyes looked her over. Her time in Jefferson had made her bold.

“I’ll give you a moment to consider the question yourself.” Harken began, remembering what lies needed to be told, what half­truths needed to be bled, “But first, you need to consider the facts. Andurien and the Freefolk struck the Accord with the agreement that no Andurien cross the Freefolk’s coast without being subject to Freefolk law. It comes to my understanding that the Freefolk have no law to speak of, so we wouldn’t be in any infringement on rules that aren’t set in the first place.” He watched as Cora’s eyebrows raised.

He knew that first point wouldn’t convince her of much, as she wasn’t much for splitting hairs, “Secondly it has come to Andurien’s attention that many freefolk harbor outlaws of Andurien, letting them stay for as long as they wish within the boundaries of comfort and freedom, until such time as the appetite of the lawless is beset on Andurien again. They but need only to cross the waters again to pervert the innocent lives of the Imperials who seek only to live in peace along Andurien River.” This was a more sensible approach, and one that Harken had come up with himself to convince the Imperial General Lee just moments before to commit to five thousand troops if the Marshals needed them.

Harken could see Cora consider this information, but she still was not convinced. That was one of the reasons for their war with the freefolk the first time. Lawlessness and civilized company did not pair together. If you cannot trust a man, you will do everything in your given power to control them.

That perhaps would never come, but it wouldn’t play well to put her in the brig now that they were leaving Fort Benthir. She would have to be put in a wagon on the way to the Iron, which would send the message to the other recruits that there was some sort of dissent in Cora. Of course that was true, but treachery loved to sow discord wherever it could find it, and Harken needed Cora to be dealt with without witness. Time would give him a chance to distance himself from her, and then perhaps dispatch riders to take care of her dissent once and for all.

“We are trying to secure Andurien’s Empire by ensuring that some degree of law and order is given to the freefolk. We cannot operate under Imperial Law on one side of the street, and have havoc and mayhem on the other. It ​will ​spill over, and both houses will burn.”

“We burned enough of their houses the first time we crossed that street, Harken. You sure they’re willing to let us cross again?” Cora was confident now that Harken wasn’t going to clap her in iron. He was ready to move, and if pushed hard enough, might consider punishing her by sending her with Fortune or at least removing Wild Fire from her company.

“That we did.” Harken said bluntly, “I’m sure they’ve remembered that, and we are hoping it’s enough to keep their pistols in their pockets long enough to see that we’re not coming for their magic, or their fields. We’re coming for their ​outlaws​, and to bring peace to the region.”

Cora considered that last bit, “Why cross the river to do that? Why not hold up by the coast and keep any from crossing that want to do us ill?” Harken looked out the window to see most of the convoy was ready to load out. Fortune and his company were also thundering through the South Eastern gate.

“Why do you think you get to ask all the questions?” Harken fired back, Fortune’s presence giving him more of a backbone, “You think you can just come in here and flip me over like a spent hog? I tell you what. You ride with Fortune.”

Though it was a card she had planned to get, she had posed that last question as a serious one. She cursed herself that she couldn’t have asked that one before prodding Harken too hard, but she turned and left at any rate. Wild Fire Bates was standing right outside, the look on his face was like stone betrayal. She stared back, listening to Fortune’s laughter from off in the Livery.

The doors to the fort opened and the convoy started on its way, and Commander Harken brushed passed the two Marshals standing toe to toe on the deck of the foreman’s office. Harken called out to Fortune as the well groomed rider came out the livery doors towards the courtyard.

“Fortune!” Harken’s voice was filled with vicious intent, but only Cora and Bates could sense it, “Montgomery rides with you. See to it that she doesn’t dally too long.”

With that, Harken approached his armored coach and entered the cab. The well armed guards sitting atop the carriage bounced as the carriage lurched forward. After a few moments, Fort Benthir’s Commander as well as most of the standing Imperial footmen had cleared out. What was left were a handful of Marshals, and of course, Cora, Fortune, and Wild Fire Bates.

“You hear that, Bates?” Fortune said, lurking through the courtyard licking his bottom lip and clicking his tongue, “Your old ma’am’s riding with me!”

“Good luck with that, George.” Bates replied, as he stepped quickly down the stairs and entered the bunkhouse. Fortune and Cora were alone for the most part in the courtyard. A few onlookers and busy hands were witness at least to what might be said.

“You ride with me?” Fortune said, looking narrow eyed at Cora. He knew something was up, but he was tied to his rules, and he was bound to follow orders.

“It would appear so. I’ll take three of your most fresh and start riding now.” Cora tried, but Fortune laughed quickly at that.

“You think I’m a plum fool, don’t ye?” Fortune said through crooked teeth. His face was grizzly from his hard night of drinking in Jefferson. Cora wouldn’t doubt there were several buzzards picking at piles of Fortune’s vomit up the carriage road. He looked pale as death; “No.” He said plainly, “The way I see it, I think I’m better off with you riding aside my own saddle bag, so I can keep a better eye on you.”

Cora very much doubted that he’d be able to keep an eye on anything after two days on the trail. The first night Fortune might spend sleeping, but the moment he started putting the bottle to his lips again, Cora would be less than a whispering dust cloud. If Cora had to guess, Fortune was going to go south as well, to Rickett’s Quay. The rail ran that way, and so did civilization. Wherever there was whiskey in the water, Fortune was sure to follow. They’d lay this land barren before heading west.

There was nothing to do now but wait for Fortune to make the call, and once he had decided on which greenhorns would stay back and patrol the valley, and took a census of the posse formations, he started sending riders out. Cora and Fortune’s riders would be the last to go. Wild Fire Bates had met Cora again in the bunkhouse with a duffel over his shoulder. He carried a marksman’s rifle in one hand, and a long captain’s saber dangled on his belt. She had seen Wild Fire tear down many an outlaw that decided to cross blades with him before, and none lay so much of a scratch on the duelist. He wasn’t much for pistols, and the rifle was for larger game, but you didn’t want him getting within six­shooter distance with his sword by any means either.

“Who are you riding with?” Cora asked. “Old Roberts, Teddy Jacoby, and a greenhorn from Weston.” He said flatly, making for the door.

“Wait.” Cora blurted.

She watched as Bates turned. She wanted to tell him her plan, with a hope that he would agree to come along. She looked at him, in his cleaned uniform and armored leather duster, and saw just as much a prisoner in him as she felt in herself. He could ride with her, be at her side when things went south. He was good at covering tracks, had a good sense to know when they were going into danger. He was a resourceful man, a man that she trusted. A man she knew would never break ties with the Empire so easily. He knew, just as well as she did, that it was suicide.

“You do what you need to do, Cora. Just be careful.”

That was the best goodbye she was going to get. It was suicide either way you looked at it. The Empire was riding their men like a horse into a flooded causeway. She watched as he loaded his saddle and hopped on his horse. Old Halfax Roberts with his twin short barreled rifles stole a glance over at Cora who stood in the doorway. He winked at her, and she smiled back. She would’ve been glad for their company again, if she was patrolling in the valley. Bates had stitched a good team over the years. She was a greenhorn in his company when she first became a Marshal.

She remembered her first ride as an Iron Star Marshall, at the Cricket Star hold­up. She had enjoyed a long day of respite the day before as a newly minted Marshal of the Empire. She’d written home with her first penny’s pay and sent it with a carriage out to Jefferson. After the war was over, the Marshals concerned themselves with outlaws in their own lands. When she was assigned to ride out with Wild Fire Bates, who she grew kin to calling him Jack Rabbit, she was excited. Teddy Jacoby and Halfax Roberts rode with him, both of them cold iron fighters, Jacoby with a long range shot that rivaled lightning, and Halfax having a strong constitution for seeing the whites of the enemy’s eyes before taking a shot. She knew she was in good company, with the chance to really make a good living on bounties. Bates sent the team riding out first thing in the morning to the outskirts of Cricket Star, where they formulated a plan as to what they were going to do.

Cricket Star was an old ranch turned dead end miner’s town. Once the mines out in the foothills of the Blue Caps dried up, Cricket Star lost its luster, and became a skeleton of a town. Hugging a deep stream, Cricket Star was a collection of row houses that were connected either by wall or boardwalk. The stream flooded in good rains and hard winters, so the entire town needed to be put on stilts. It had an abandoned saloon, a doctor’s office, undertaker, a jail, a small depot bank, two hotels, and a prospector’s bunkhouse. The Marshals got the call to come clear it out when it was discovered that a group of riders calling themselves the “White Fang Gang” moved in and were starting to pull in business by robbing the nearby coach road. They had kidnapped and ransomed trader’s families and associates, and had known to have strung up the sheriff of the nearby town of Charlotte.

They had decided that Cora would go up the range with Jacoby and set up a good spot to cover Old Roberts and Bates’s approach. Cora and Jacoby crossed the stream and set up high on the ridge opposite of town and waited. Cora was handed the spotter’s glass to survey the situation. She saw the posse, a healthy 6 men were in the saloon with what looked to be settlers they had picked up from the coach road. It was a family, resettling from the looks of their things strewn about.

From what Cora could see from the windows of the saloon, the 6 riders had made sure to separate the men from the women and children. They had taken the women upstairs, where Cora would only be able to assume what they were doing, and the men were forced to listen in the gallery downstairs. It was a hard image to break oneself of, looking through the spotter’s glass. She had grown old enough to consider herself a woman in the eyes of most men while still in the West, but being raised on a ranch sheltered her from the true savagery and nature of a man gone wild. It was a deep cut lesson for her to learn, and one she never forgot. The frontier was a hard life, and the outlaw brigand made it all the harder. Cora watched Bates jump on the front porch’s roof and enter a shuttered window. With his efficient use of his captain’s saber, he made quick work of the men upstairs without arousing any suspicion from those below.

It was a cold feeling that came over Cora, watching blindly through a spotter’s glass at empty shutters, knowing that life was being taken on the other side. There was no shots that rang out. Old Roberts entered below with a loud bark of his rifle. Killing one man as he entered, he stopped the other two from reaching for their guns by having his at the ready. The family was screaming, out of relief or fear, Cora could not know, but the sounds of barking guns and screaming children was not a good song to remember. Bates came down and motioned on the ridge for Cora and Jacoby to come down.

“That was quick.” Jacoby said as they were coming down the slope towards the stream. Cora was silent. She felt a need to say something, but no words came. She nodded and murmured something in agreement as they approached the saloon. The hollow screech of a crow hawked over the trees. Their boots met the boardwalk and Old Jefferson came thundering out with the two remaining outlaws, their hands tied behind them. He pressed them hard with his rifles.

“Get on with ye! Get out!” He yelled. His grey beard and beady eyes were a flame with fury. The two outlaws fell into the wet soft patch of the woodland floor, pleading. One of them balled up into a knot and sobbed, and the other shouted pleas for forgiveness.

“We know where Angus Bellows’ treasure is! If you let us go we’ll show you! We swear!” Bates came out of the saloon and walked slowly up to the edge of the boardwalk where all four of the Marshals now stood. The wailing of a woman bellowed upstairs. The frontier was hard.

“You know where Angus Bellow’s treasure is?” Bates asked, his eyes narrowed. He wiped his saber clean of the blood that made rivers on its edges.

“Yeah!” The pleading one yelped. The other one continued to sob, but nodded profusely, “yeah! We do! It’s all gold too! Ripped off one of the trains headed to Madison! It’s a fortune. You could live like kings, all four of you. We swear!”

Bates continued to look at them, with the same narrowed eyes. “Montgomery.” He said, Cora jerked. “These men say we should let them go so that they can show us where we can get Madison’s gold back. What say you?”

This was a test. Her first ride out with Bates would have very well been her last, and he was influential in the Marshals. It would’ve been hard to get any good bounties without his approval.

“I say put them in irons and let Madison decide.” She answered. Bates didn’t seem pleased, “You take their word? That they know where this treasure is?”

“It’s not my place to say.” Cora replied. “It is your place, Marshal.” Bates answered. He sheathed his saber and crossed his arms, “We are the law in Andurien, Marshal Montgomery. We are judge and jury to those we pursue, armed with our conviction that those who take from the law must assuredly pay for what they’ve done.” Bates turned and faced Cora, the greenhorn freefolk from the west. “Now I ask again, while you consider their facts, as judge and jury; what say you?”

Cora looked at the two convicts laying helpless on the ground. The one sobbing had calmed down from his fit of terror and both of them were looking at her. They said they knew where Madison’s lost gold was. If found, that would be a boon to the town, who had suffered from the loss and had not yet recovered. However, Cora considered, if the outlaws knew exactly where to find the gold why were they holding up travellers on the coach road when they had enough gold to live off of for the rest of their lives? Angus Bellows was dead in a shallow grave, so says the rumors of the range, so they would have no competition if what they say was true. If it were false, then they were lying out of their hides to try and buy themselves chance to escape. If it were true, then they were robbing and raping on the coach road for purposes other than gold. Either way she saw it, they were guilty.

“Tell me where it is, then.” Cora said, and listened to the men recount the exact location of what they would lead the Marshals to believe was the location of Angus Bellows’ gold. She listened intently, and the other Marshals stood silent. This was part of her test. This was the way of the Andurien Frontier. “We’ll wait in Madison’s cells til you find it. When you find it, you can let us go, right?”

Cora looked at them again, their faces bright and smiling, “You’re lying.” She spat. Their smiles faded, and one of them swore.

“Is that right?” One of the outlaws replied, his lip quivering, “Why would I lie! Why would I lie like that? I told you true!”

Cora looked at Bates, “These men have a fortune hiding in the hills and yet they still take from the carriage road? They are either greedy, or are as poor as we will be, hunting down a phantom treasure." She looked back at the outlaws, who eyed her nervously. "I say we let them have their wish, and spare their lives til we get to Madison.”

She could hear the outlaws trying to thank her through mocked sobs. They wouldn’t escape from the Marshals, but they were betting hard on getting out of Madison’s cells long before any riders tried to go find their false lead to the gold.

“You’ll hang once we arrive.” She said finally, watching all life and decency bleed out of their smiling faces.

“That’s not the deal!” one of them screamed, "You just want to take the treasure and our bounty as a sick pair, iddn’t it!? You filthy crook!" he started kicking the fresh earth under his boots as one of the other Marshals dragged him off to the horses. “We had an Accord...” he began, his mouth girning, foaming, gurgling­ “WE HAD AN ACCORD!!”

His face, her judgement, was something that she carried with her; like a weight in her pocket. Every once in a while she’d find her hand digging around in there, and there he’d be, foaming, screaming. Andurien had an accord with her, with the West, and with every soldier they had under their banner. They had promised the people a truce.