A young man’s anger and gun
An old man’s secrets and magic
A moment that binds them forever
Teer was forced into exile in the Spehari’s Eastern Territories after they betrayed his father’s memory, leaving him and his mother destitute. He has grown up on the ranch of his mother’s new husband, nursing the skills of a cowboy and the anger of a betrayed child.
When one of the demigod-like Spehari walks into his bar, Teer gives in to a pointless moment of anger—opening fire on one of the rulers of the Unity!
Sentenced to hang for his crime, Teer’s life hangs by the slimmest of threads: the mercy and secrets of the very immortal he tried to kill…
“Coral, watch ’em on the left; they’re pushing.”
The only reply Teer got from Coral was a vague wave, but the ranch hand kneed her horse forward in response to his shout. A moment later, the dark-skinned Merik woman with the braided ponytail was bellowing at the cattle who were drifting out of the cluster plodding along the road.
One steer had spotted something at the side of the path and gone to investigate. Cattle being herd creatures, five more had tried to follow him. Coral’s shouting startled them and they fell back into line with the rest of the herd in front of Teer.
The gawky young Merik man, who’d just celebrated his nineteenth turning with the hands he was currently ordering about, watched the herd with a careful eye for a few more blinks, then glanced ahead. The translucent green dome of the ward around Alvid was visible ahead of them.
“Ward coming up,” he shouted. “Watch the cattle; none of ’em like this.”
There was a clear line in the dirt around the rough-packed road to mark the ward too. The other three hands from Hardin’s Ranch would have spotted the ward before they drove the cows through it, but better safe than sorry.
As usual, the lead steers passed through the protective field around the wardtown and spooked. They tried to stop, which risked bringing the entire herd of cattle to a crashing halt that might even kill some of the product.
Coral and Deck were shouting at the recalcitrant beasts, but this turning’s herd was a stubborn bunch of steers. Others were crossing the wardline and none of them were moving forward, the herd threatening the exact crush they couldn’t afford.
Teer did not want to be the one explaining to Hardin, his mother’s husband and the ranch owner, how he’d lost half a dozen steers to an entirely predictable spooking at the wardline.
He drew his quickshooter and fired over the cattle’s heads, the revolver’s crack spooking the entire herd into a rush across the wardline.
“Keep ’em on the line,” he shouted as steers lunged forward, their fear of the gunfire stronger than their fear of the discomfort from crossing the ward. “We know where they’re going. They don’t!”
That got him a laugh from Anthor, the last of the other hands riding with him. All four of them were dressed in much the same sturdy clothing: pants and shirts sewn by Alana, Teer’s mother, from machine-woven cloth made out west in the main cities of the Unity.
All of them were Merik, the dark-skinned people that formed the core of the Unity’s numbers. Most of Alvid’s people would be Merik as well, though there were always some members of the Unity’s other people—except the Unity’s Spehari rulers. Those were far rarer.
Anthor was the oldest of the hands, with at least a dozen turnings on Teer, but he was willing enough to defer to the younger man. A lot of weight came with being the son of the rancher’s wife, even if Teer wasn’t Hardin’s son.
“They’re fine,” Anthor told him, but he put his heels to his own brown mare and rode forward across the wardline.
That left Teer alone at the rear of the herd, shouting at the last few steers to convince them to cross through the vague green light. Then, taking a deep breath, he edged Star, his own mare, across the line.
Every time he entered the wardtown, it sent shivers down his spine. It wasn’t just Alvid, either. The town he’d been born in had been on the coast out west, under the looming shadow of one of the Spehari’s Iron Pillars, but they’d still had a wardstone to protect them from inclement weather.
Once he was in, he was fine, but crossing the wardline always gave him chills.
“Ohlman’s expecting us,” Teer told his team as it became clear they had the cattle inside the ward and headed the right way. “Let’s take ’em down the road to the stockyard. The drivers’ll have a pen waiting for us.”
Getting eighty steers to move in one direction at once is a practiced skill, but Teer and his companions were practiced at it. This was the fourth time Teer had helped bring the cattle down to Alvid to sell to the cattle drive.
It was the first time he’d done so with the general understanding that he was in charge, but that spoke to the slowly changing nature of his role on the ranch. At some point, Teer’s younger half-brother, Alstair, would inherit the business from Hardin.
But Alstair had all of five turnings. Teer had been working on the ranch for as long as Alstair had been alive, and Hardin was mostly recognizing the reality: the hands already looked to the “boss’s wife’s son” for orders if Hardin wasn’t around. Today, that meant Hardin had put him in charge of the team of four selling the cattle.
Getting them through town was the hardest part in many ways, even if it was barely the last mile of the trip.
When the last of the herd finally ran away from Coral flicking it with the end of a rope and into the pen, two of Ohlman’s outriders slammed the gates shut behind them.
“I count hundred eighty-six,” one of the two men, both wildly bearded, told Teer. He was on foot, which left him looking up at the dark-skinned youth on the horse. “Cas?”
“I got one hundred eighty-six,” the other man confirmed. “What you expecting, kid?”
“We left the ranch with one seventy-eight, so that’s amazing,” Teer said with intentionally wide eyes. The two men looked at each other in near-panic before Coral started laughing behind him.
“Talk down to Teer, he’s going to yank you,” she told the outriders. “We left with a hundred eighty-six.”
“We did,” Teer confirmed with a chuckle. “So, our counts match.”
Cas waved a finger at him but was chuckling himself.
“You are trouble, Master Teer,” he said. There was a bit more respect in his tone than there had been a moment before. “Master Ohlman is in the office. Here.”
Cas pulled a pen and a pad of papers from inside his jacket. He jotted down a quick note of numbers and initialed the paper. Yanking the sheet off, he handed it up to Teer.
“That confirms we count one hundred and eighty-six head,” he explained, like Teer hadn’t watched the process before. “Boss will sort out stones for your boss. Safe ride home.”
“Thanks, Cas,” Teer replied. He swung Star around to look at his own ranch hands. “I’ll go meet with Master Ohlman,” he told them. “Catch up with you three in a candlemark.”
There was a clock on the watchtower behind the wardstone, visible from anywhere in the central part of town. The five-story tower was the only building in the wardtown that had more than two stories.
“At the bar?” Coral suggested cheerfully.
“Fine,” he agreed with exaggerated patience. “Hardin isn’t paying for your booze.”
“When does he ever? See you, Teer.”
The two male hands pulled their horses in behind Coral’s with cheerful waves to Teer. Shaking his head, he glanced around the stockyard to make sure Ohlman had set his office up in the same place as always.
There were three buildings that could be used as an office in the stockyard, but only one had the cattle drive’s provision wagon pulled right up next to it. The brightly painted sign on the side of the wagon announced that “Atrach and Sons Cattle Sales” was in town—and, presumably, in that office.
“Come in, Teer,” Ohlman—one of the sons of “Atrach and Sons”—shouted the moment the young Merik knocked on the door.
Teer chuckled and stepped into the office. He hadn’t been in the small building before, but it looked much the same as every structure he’d been in out here in the Unity’s Eastern Territories. The Territories were still only loosely policed or organized, but the buildings were either built with imported materials from the West, raw logs, or planks cut to standard pieces by the handful of sawmills in the Territories themselves.
Alvid was built around one of said sawmills, so everything in the wardtown was built of identical standardized planks. The desk Ohlman rose from as Teer entered was made from a mix of shorter standard pieces and cast-off bits.
There were nicer pieces of furniture to be had in the small wardtown, but this office was a rental that would go through five or six users over the course of a turning of the seasons. So long as it was sturdy, the caravans that came through were happy enough.
Ohlman came around the desk and grasped Teer’s hands in both of his, shaking up and down fiercely. The cattle drive leader was a Zeeanan, a broad-shouldered man tanned enough to only look a bit pale against the mostly-Merik population of Alvid.
The Merik had been the first people the Spehari had brought into the Unity, and still formed the beating heart of its power and growth. Teer had his problems with his country and its overlords, but he still took pride in the role his people had taken in bringing civilization to this continent.
“You have the receipt from Cas?” Ohlman asked after releasing Teer’s hands.
“Here.” Teer passed over the piece of paper.
“Good, good.” Ohlman gestured him to a seat in front of the desk as he read the note. “I see you managed to beat the sickness that caught them. My last letter from Hardin said he was worried he’d have a hundred fifty head or even less for us.”
“A few cursed long nights staying up with the sickest and a tenday of hand-feeding five of ’em, but they pulled through,” Teer said. “We checked before we rode out; these’re all the same weight as the rest now. We swapped three that weren’t for steers from our own winter herd. They’ll get up to weight for when we need ’em, but aren’t yet.”
“That’s why I like dealing with Hardin,” the drive leader told him. “He told you to tell me all that?”
“He did, sir, yes,” Teer confirmed. There weren’t many people he’d call sir. Hardin was one of them. Outside of that, there was really only the town Wardkeeper and Ohlman himself.
“You’re nineteen now, Teer, a man in every way that matters,” the Zeeanan said with a laugh. “I refuse to have a man I’m talking business and money with call me sir; am I clear?”
“Good. Now, the rate Hardin and I agreed to was a stone and twenty shards a head,” Ohlman continued. “Hardin wasn’t sure when we last traded letters how he’d want it paid. Did he give you instructions?”
“Letter with the bank,” Teer confirmed. His mother did Hardin’s books, so he knew the logic behind taking deposit versus cash. A “stone” was a physical redcrystal, a type of rock valued by the Spehari for their magic, cut to a specific carat and stamped with a mark to certify that weight.
There were blue and white glass coins for smaller amounts—shards and chips—and notes for larger, but the certified crystals were still the default cash.
“Always the easiest for me,” Ohlman agreed cheerfully. “I keep accounts in Alvid anyway. I pick up a good chunk of my cattle here.”
He pulled a bottle and two cups out of the desk.
“Cactus spirit, Teer? That’s business handled for Hardin, but I wanted to talk to you,” he continued.
Teer hesitated for a moment. He wasn’t sure what Ohlman would want to talk to him about. On the other hand, he wasn’t necessarily going to turn down free alcohol.
“All right,” he said.
Ohlman filled the cups with a heavy hand before sliding one over to Teer. There was a lot more of the spirit in the cup than Teer would normally drink in an evening, let alone in one sitting, and he sipped carefully at it.
“Hardin says you’re a good hand. Good rider, good shot, good man with the cattle,” he said slowly. “I watched you bring the cows in today. Four hands for a hundred eighty head. How many do you think you could handle on your own?”
“Depends on the riders with me,” Teer said slowly, not sure where this was going. He took a gulp of the spirit, letting it burn its way down his throat as he considered. “On my own? Maybe twenty, thirty? The more hands you have, the more you can handle per rider.”
“I’m picking up five hundred cattle here, from three ranches in total,” Ohlman told him. “That’s an eighth of this drive. We’re already driving twelve hundred we picked up, and we’ll pick up another two thousand-plus before we reach the end of the trail and head back for the stockyards at Shiaray.
“I’ve twenty outriders and four camp staff to handle three thousand head. That’s two hundred or more cattle per rider. Think you could handle it?”
Teer was confused. He didn’t think he’d drunk enough of the spirit to be this confused.
“Your riders are good,” he admitted. “I figure it’s different enough it’d take a tenday or so to really learn the tricks for handling that many cows.”
“Smart man,” Ohlman told him. “Look, one of my outriders, Pond, is getting wed at the end of this drive. He’s one of the clever ones, saved up most of his pay and bonuses. Five turnings and he’s got enough to buy himself a decent small ranch on the edge of the Territories and start up on his own.
“So, I’ve a gap…and Hardin wanted me to offer you the job.”
Teer’s fingers twitched around the metal cup. That made no sense.
“I’m grateful for the offer,” he said slowly. “I’m happy on the ranch, but I can see the value.”
“My men make good money, Teer,” Ohlman told him. “It’s how Hardin got his start, back when we rode together for my father. Before the war.”
Teer clenched his cup harder and took a deeper swallow. Before the war. During the war, too. Hardin had been out there, herding cattle, when Teer’s father had been drafted to carry a rifle for the Spehari.
“I don’t know why Hardin would want you to offer me the job,” he said plaintively, realizing he probably shouldn’t be speaking, even as the words spilled out of his mouth. “I figured I was doing good work.”
He shut himself up with another swallow of cactus spirit. That was probably a bad plan, but he didn’t have another one in his confusion.
Olhman looked uncomfortable and took a long drink of his own spirit.
“I’m not supposed to be the one explaining this to you,” he admitted. “Don’t know what happened, that was on Hardin, but it ain’t fair to leave it hanging.”
There was a long silence as both of them swallowed more alcohol.
“All three of us know that Alstair will get the ranch when Hardin goes,” the older man said slowly. “He’s healthy as that godawful bull of his, but this ain’t a safe life for any soul. But if he kicks it in ten turnings or twenty, it’s the same problem: the hands look to you for orders, but you won’t own the farm.
“Ten turnings at least before Alstair can rope a steer or help out. Ten turnings where Hardin’s men get used to looking to you for answers, not the boy. He don’t think it’s fair to either of you, and he ain’t wrong.
“Alstair will have his authority questioned, and you, regardless of how loyal you are or how much you love your brother, will question why he gets the wealth and the ranch and you just get a job.”
Teer stared down into the empty cup for a long moment. Ohlman gestured for him to slide it back, filling it with more spirit before returning it.
“Hardin wants to see you both succeed,” the Zeeanan said softly. “You ain’t his blood, Teer, but he’s raised you since you were all of nine turnings. That means something to a man like Hardin. Means something to a man like me.
“If he tells me you can ride for me, I’ll have you ride for me,” Ohlman concluded. “If he tells me this will help everyone win, I’m even more for it. It’s your choice, Teer. I don’t think Hardin’s going to kick you to the street with just a horse and a gun anytime soon, but he’s looking out for his blood first.
“He’s looking out for you too, but he’s got to think of Alstair first.”
Teer downed the entire cup of spirit in one go, then rose shakily to his feet.
“I understand,” he slurred. “I don’t thin…I can’t think I can make a decision right now. Let me…go. Think.”
“We’re in town for two more days,” Ohlman told him gently. “If you want to go back to the ranch, talk to Hardin and your ma, I get it. Offer’s open until the end of the season, really, if you were to change your mind and catch up later, even.
“Take your time, Teer. This wasn’t supposed to be this kind of shock.”
Teer nodded his understanding, not trusting his mouth to say anything reasonable, and then painstakingly turned and left the room.
He was supposed to meet his people at the bar. That sounded surprisingly appealing at this particular moment.