The Price of Demand (First Draft)


THE PRICE OF DEMAND
by Gordon S. McLeod

 

The tower rose to an imposing 15 meters, except where it didn’t. The square stone structure was surrounded by scaffolding, workmen climbing up and down a solid interior staircase or being raised on crude lifts, hoisted by the power of their fellows at the top.

Waldon Sias stood at the base of the tower, huge arms wrenching a gear that wound a rope, raising several of the men in his team higher to the unfinished portion of the tower’s top level.

“Oi, here we are!” one of them called, and started unloading stone heavy stone bricks onto the scaffolding while Sias tied the ropes off.

“I want that southern wall built up by mid-day, mind!” His deep, gruff voice carried the casual assurance that came from leading teams such as this for years. None of his men would dare foul up this project; not here, not on his watch.

A shadow to his right announced the arrival of another, and the quiet footfalls told him who; Dolet. Altman Dolet was a young man, but several years before had come into some money and had been eager to put it to use. Dolet was no woodsman or tracker to move silently, but he was lightly built and tread softly out of habit.

“Your men are making good progress, I see.”

“Aye. They’ll ‘ave the rest of ‘er up by sunfall, you can be sure of that. They know they’ll be answerin’ to me if they don’t.”

Dolet made no reply, instead pulling a pair of large leather and brass goggles down over his eyes from where they’d rested on his head. He stood there, still and silent, head canted up to inspect the work in detail. Waldon had a similar pair himself, and knew they’d provide a fine view of the smallest details, even from the far side of the large clearing; the lenses were stacked one in front of the next 5 deep over each eye, with small levers on each side of the head allowing individual adjustment or removal of each lens. An expensive set such as those that Dolet wore would allow comfortable viewing at any range from 5 centimeters to 5 kilometers, line of sight allowing.

“I’m glad to hear of it. I’ll need you to begin working on the foundry in three day’s time, and—” His words cut off as he started, stepping back involuntarily, hands raising as if in protest.

Waldon’s eyes snapped from him to the tower’s top, where a tall, over-stacked mass of rock was teetering. The worker who’d called down to him caught sight of the unstable pile from the corner of his eye and rushed to try and stabilize it, but even Waldon’s unaided sight recognized the mis-step he took. He stumbled, fell into the stack of bricks, and down, down they all came, landing in a mangled heap not 3 meters from where they stood.

The sounds of construction slowed and stopped, a hush falling until Waldon’s bellow rang out, “Medic! Man down, north east tower site! MEDIC!”

A loud commotion broke out then as men rushed to the scene, gathering and staring. The man lay in a broken pile, but his chest rose and fell; he lived. His arm pumped blood from not one, but three compound fractures. He had landed with his left arm in the perfect position to have his elbow slammed downward by a heavy stone brick while both fore— and lower arm were held up by others, and both the thick bone of the forearm and the two of the lower arm shone white where their broken ends had pierced flesh and skin.

He lay silent, unconscious or so deeply in shock he had not felt the injury yet. Given the height from which he’d fallen, it was a wonder he was alive at all, but from the amount of blood pouring from his arm, Waldon wondered with dread whether he’d stay that way for long.

The foreman stepped back to clear the way for the arriving medics, men and women in long, soft leather robes. The lead medic took one look at him and gestured for her assistants forward with a stretcher, then stepped in to help them clear bricks from his body.

As the bricks came away, Walden saw the man had broken more than 3 bones. Several ribs and one leg were the worst of the rest. His face grew ashen, and a hand dipped into his pocket.

Dolet stood stricken as they watched the medics cart the man away. Waldon pulled a four-leafed clover from the pocket and slowly walked to the blood-stained pile of bricks where the man had landed. He glanced once at Dolet the scientist; he knew the man didn’t care for what he thought of as silly superstitions, but they’d served him well in his life so far. He carefully placed the clover on the spot and backed away. Dolet eyed him, but said nothing.

“Of all the rotten, stinkin’ luck …”

“Accidents happen, but this we really didn’t need. Let’s hope our luck improves.” Dolet gazed down upon the four-leafed clover thoughtfully. “I have to get back to other details. I’ll leave you to completing the tower.”

Waldon shook himself out of his daze. “A’right men, back to it! And don’t let me catch any ‘o you bein’ as careless as Claver there! If he thinks a rest in the medics’ tent’s gonna save his sorry hide for long, he’s got a long, hard lesson ahead! You, get tha’ …”

He lost himself in the task of getting the men back to work. They had a schedule to keep, and one less body to help keep it.

<> <> <>

Altman Dolet sat at his desk, head in his hands, pouring over settlement details. When he’d first dreamed up the idea of putting together a town in this place, it had seemed so simple. He’d live in his late Uncle’s ancestral home and put the word out, and just like that, people would trickle in and buildings would rise and in a few years, poof! A whole town would grow from the empty valley.

It seemed like a lifetime ago, a naive dream. Naturally it was a lot more involved than that. People needed a reason to move to a place. Reasons like safety. Reasons like opportunity. He found himself juggling responsibilities tied to giving people those reasons, like the guard tower that had so suddenly become a thorn in the fledgling community’s side.

He couldn’t even call it a community, not really. The whole population consisted of himself, his wife Kaylene, some assorted staff and the work crew of 20 men who truly lived in Holdswaine, Altman’s original home. They had temporary barracks set up for housing while they worked on the town’s first buildings. He hoped that in time, some of them might take a liking to the place and move their families out permanently, though after today’s accident he wasn’t as hopeful as he’d once been. It had not been the first accident, and after the third had occurred the past week, whispers of bad luck had started circulating.

“Ridiculous!” He sighed in frustration. “Nonsense superstition. Luck, indeed.” Altman had no use for luck, good or bad. He firmly believed that one made one’s own luck. But he also knew that the men believed in luck, and there was little to be gained from openly challenging their convictions. He had to show them, instead.

It was going to be expensive, but he didn’t see any choice in the matter. He had to be very careful when it came to money. In truth, he had a vast fortune, more than anyone but Kaylene suspected he had. But that fortune was the reason he was building the town. It was known he had some money, but as far as anyone knew it was money he’d inherited when he inherited his Uncle’s home, a family fortune. In truth, the money came from several rich mineral deposits he had identified upon his first arrival here.

His uncle Eldrid Tremaine had summoned him upon his graduation, and intended to pass on the discovery to Altman, but Altman had been an apt student of the science of minerals and recognized the valley’s potential quickly. Betrayal at the hands of his erstwhile friend Deman had convinced Altman that if he intended to take advantage of the valley’s riches, he would need to keep the secret safe.

To that end he had worked carefully and in secret over the last several years. He traded in small quantities of rare minerals on visits to larger cities, and encouraged the belief that the money had belonged to his Uncle.

He was always careful never to trade too much at any one time, lest someone think to wonder where he was getting it from. He had also found that trading smaller quantities let him command higher prices, which worked to both his financial and scientific advantage, as the value of the minerals to him lay primarily in their varied applications, not their value at trade.

He set brass quill to paper and began drafting a new work order. He had intended to move slower, but if the area gained a reputation for bad luck it’d do him little good.

“Another accident.” Gentle hands fell on his shoulders, the left adorned with a shining wedding band.

“Yes. Even Waldon’s starting to lose his nerve. We’re going to have to move forward faster than I’d like, I’m afraid.”

“If we get a crew in to build the road now, it’ll sure lift spirits, but it will also encourage traders and merchants to visit. What if someone learns of the electrite deposits, or the others? Once word gets out …”

“I know, my love. But we can’t afford to let this place gain a bad reputation. While it would certainly help us keep the secret, we’d never be able to attract anyone to mine the deposits, and I don’t intend to do it myself forever I can tell you! We need the road in a hurry, we need forest cleared by the river, and we need the river-way cleared to allow water-borne shipping up to the coast cities in the north.”

“Of course, but we’ve got to make sure that those who come in don’t find out about the minerals! If the Conclave got wind of it, you know they’ll swoop in and claim it for themselves.” That was why they needed the settlement. It was true that it would make the recovery of the minerals far easier, not to mention the processing, but it was really for the security.

They were going to have to go public with the location of the resources sooner or later. Altman intended to carefully control the how and when of it though. Electrite was an incredibly rare mineral, incredibly valuable, and as a student, he’d never had the opportunity to work with it. Samples were simply too rare, too expensive, and too dangerous to waste on students.

He’d had an instructor who had worked with it though, and who had shown him. Adept Bateson had had plenty of experience with electrite, a powerfully radioactive material with fantastic power potential. The burn scarring on his hands and face had been all the warning the younger Altman had needed to treat it with a healthy respect and caution.

“They will, yes. We’ve done all we can on our own to protect it; the sites we know of are all well disguised with run down, ‘abandoned’ buildings. I did see one person wander closer than I’d have liked, but they never spared the area a glance.”

There were telltales for the mineral’s presence it would take a learned eye such as Altman’s to spot. There were also far more obvious clues, such as dead and stunted foliage in the immediate area around a deposit. Luckily the radiation was only dangerous in a short radius around the mineral, at least in the short term. Long-term continued exposure resulted in dead zones meters across; still relatively short-range, but visible enough that attracting people to the valley would inevitably cause attention to be drawn, questions to be raised.

It was a very flimsy defense and wouldn’t stand up to any sort of scrutiny at all beyond the most cursory, but that and obscurity were all they had.

“With the luck we’ve had here lately, it’s just a matter of time before someone finds it.”

“Not you too! You know I don’t believe in luck, good or bad.”

“You may not, husband, but they surely do, and I wish you’d learn to at least understand that, if not accept it. It means we’ve got a problem either way. If luck exists, it’s bound to run out at some point. Even if it doesn’t, they believe it and will get spooked if things like this keep happening.”

There was little he could say to that, and they retired to the house for supper.

The old house that uncle Tremaine had left them was large, and they’d given over a wing of it to the medics. Usually it was unoccupied save for that small group. There really was just the one medic, with an apprentice and two assistants, and now the poor unfortunate Claver, who was badly injured and being kept close to help. After dinner, the couple stopped in to check on his injuries. The medic met them at the door to the wing. She was a stout, older woman in her healer’s leathers.

“How is he doing?” Kaylene’s voice was concerned, but betrayed no anxiousness.

“He’s bad off now, but he’ll live, right enough. That arm, though …” The medic’s face looked bleak. “I’ve got the bones set, but that was a right nasty piece of work. Muscles are all torn up. If I c’n keep infection at bay, he’ll keep the arm. Whether it’ll work right again, though, well it’s just too early to say.”

“Can we see him?” Altman’s voice was a bit gruff; he couldn’t help feeling a guilty pang. It’d been many hours since the accident and his only thoughts of it so far had been of how it impacted him and his plans. When had he become so cold?

“No point. I ‘ave him on the poppiate. He’ll be out till afternoon tomorrow if not later. I’ll let ‘im know you came by though; I’m sure he’ll appreciate it.”

They nodded farewells and the medic disappeared inside the makeshift hospital ward.

“I hope our luck turns soon.”

Kaylene raised an eyebrow, but smiled slightly as they walked back to their rooms. “Apparently, anything can happen.”

The smile was wiped away when they entered their bedroom. There in the center of the bed was a wooden tray he didn’t recognize, and on the tray was a sizable sample of a bluish ore Altman recognized all too well.

Unprocessed electrite.

<> <> <>

The next morning Altman found himself inspecting the tower once more. It had been completed the day before, mortar and heavy stone bricks laid to perfection all the way up on all sides. It was a reassuring sight, even absent the armsmen Altman intended to hire to man it. For now it served a dual purpose, both as a watch point and as a beacon to those who saw it, saying “We’re serious about safety.” Tell that to Claver, he thought. There was still blood visible on the ground.

He was watchful as he inspected the site, keeping his eyes on the milling workers as they moved their operation to the next build site. Someone had moved that ore into his home, his very bedchamber. Someone knew what he was up to, what he was protecting. Someone had sent him a message.

He’d been startled out of his wits last night, and Kaylene had to talk him down from charging out in a rush to confront … who knew who? “Whoever did this is obviously keeping it quiet, too, or they’d have confronted us in public, or worse, gone off to sell their knowledge in the cities, maybe to the Conclave. We need to find out what they’re up to, what they want from us. They must want SOMETHING.” Kaylene had been adamant, and he knew she was right.

There was nothing around the tower he could spot that screamed of sabotage to him, but then the accident had happened high up where the walls had been unfinished, and he was no trained inspector. “I’m likely just leaping to conclusions, and I should know better. Just a little unsettled, that’s all. A fall from a wall is a much stronger message than a tray of ore on a bed, so the fall probably wasn’t a message at all. Was it?”

Footsteps sounded behind him. “Yer not the first I’ve heard muttering to himself today, y’aren’t. Nobody’s feelin’ right after yesterday. But the tower’s up, right enough.” Waldon Sias.

Altman nodded. “And a fine job, Sias. I see your men have been quick on their feet; the scaffolding’s all down already? Everything packed up and moved to the new market site?”

“It is, aye. They didn’t want to linger by the tower more’n they had to. Can’t say as I blame ‘em. Work’s likely to progress fast now, but not for the reasons I’m lookin’ for.”

“No, that’d only make things worse. If they work so fast that they start having accidents as a result, they’ll only make all this talk of so-called ‘bad luck’ worse.”

Sias’ face darkened a shade; Alton cursed himself for his poorly-chosen words. “Don’t you worry about it,” he said, a touch stiffly. “I’ll see that it gets done fast and safe.”

Altman watched him leave, then turned to follow. The market was to be a quick build, little more than a cleared space with some pre-built stalls to allow merchants a place to set their wares for sale. Only a few of Waldon’s men would be working on that; the rest he’d have building the road.

When he arrived at the market, really only a few steps away, three large, very heavily muscled men were digging out a patch of earth a good 20 meters across. Stacks of stone bricks similar to those used for the tower were scattered around the perimeter. Within a few days the area would be stone-paved and smooth.

Three men worked at the ground, the bulk of it dug out. One man worked at removing hard-packed earth from the far side while two more compacted the earth with heavy tools. All three ignored him. The two nearer ones, turned to Waldon as he approached with the day’s instructions.

He felt exposed somehow, almost awkward, but knew he had to stay with the daily inspection routine. Whoever had left him the message could be watching for the effect of his revelation. There was no sense in giving anything away before he had to.

It was amazing, he thought, how little it took to completely change the feel of a place. The valley had started as a haven, a land of promise and scientific exploration, of wonders. It had become a land of bad luck for some; for Kaylene and himself, a land of shadows where an opportunistic mystery agent lurked, ready to expose them or blackmail them or who really knew what.

The trick, he decided, was figuring out how to nudge things just enough to get things back on track to the wonderful promise he’d started with.

“Let’s be off then. I’ll show you what we’ve got for a road.” Waldon’s voice was less cold, but there was a tightness of the expression there that said Altman’s problems were getting worse.

The road was little more than a faint trail and a promise. It was to be carved out of the woods in stages. First would come the leg out to the Holdswaine road and the merchant trade that would bring. Once that was complete, they’d turn to the other direction and build out along the river to the deeper waters where docks could be built and water trade could begin; those docks were the third stage. Once the docks were built, unused wood obtained in the building of the road would be simple to ship elsewhere for trade.

Waldon slowed; Alton, trailing behind, had to stop abruptly to avoid walking right into him. He stepped aside and frowned. A group of 5 of Waldon’s men were gathered around a 6th, pale but upright, clutching his arm.

“What’s this about? Why’re you all standin’ around? All the trees are marked, are they?”

“It’s Baines, Sias. Cut his arm deep while markin’ the tree.” In roadwork, they had to mark the path the road was to take. They did this by making a thin wedge cut at the base of each tree that was to be removed. “Says his hatchet slipped.”

Baines was a bit smaller than some of the other men, which was to say he only out-massed Altman by most of his bodyweight again instead of fully double it. His face could’ve been carved from granite for a gargoyle, and wore the workmen’s rough-woven, dark-dyed clothing. He looked up at Altman, pain in his eyes. Altman could’ve sworn there was a flash of something there though. Not recognition; they’d all been there long enough to have seen him around. Whatever it was, it was something ugly. He shivered in spite of himself.

Waldon pushed his way through and Alton followed. Baines’ arm was very bloody, but even to his untrained eye it didn’t look particularly deep or serious. There was no shortage of dark looks directed his way; he schooled his features to cool, serious concern. It helped that the looks inspired a flare of genuine irritation.

“Get ‘im to the medics’ wing, Mitchell. The rest ‘o you can get to it, and do it like I told you this time! I’ll ‘ave no careless accidents on my watch or there’ll be hell to pay.” Waldon turned, examining the tree; Alton saw his hand twitch toward a pocket, but he seemed to hold himself back, turning resolutely away.

“Mr. Dolet, we’ll cut the review short today I think, under th’ circumstances and all. I’ll work on this myself and make sure nothin’ more serious happens.”

“Of course. Thank you, Waldon. I’ll check on Baines and see if Claver’s improved at all.”

Mind a whirl, the walk back to the house seemed to take far longer than it really was. He really hadn’t liked the look on Baines’ face.

There was no warning. One moment Altman was climbing the short flight of steps to the front door of the house, and the next moment found the world a blur of pain and hazy mist.

After what felt like several weeks he managed to get his eyes open, though he couldn’t quite bring them into focus. He was lying down, of that he was fairly sure. It felt like a bed, with some sort of cover on it. The room walls, what he could see of them, were too light a color to be his bedchamber; Kaylene had had dark wood paneling installed shortly after they married. The medics’ wing then.

He shifted his arm, or tried — the movement caused his head to explode into bright whorls and spots of brilliant color and even more brilliant, blinding pain that quickly faded to black.

An indeterminate amount of time later he faded back into consciousness again. This time he could see a bit better; he was in the medics’ wing, as he’d suspected. This time there was a hazy shape at his side; he thought it might be Kaylene. There was a gasp as she recognized his awakening.

He shifted his eyes in her direction; definitely Kaylene. He didn’t try to move his head, mindful of what had happened last time he moved anything.

His wife laid a hand on his shoulder; he winced inward, but there was only the faint twinge of pain in answer. He’d been unconscious for some time, he guessed. Then he noticed the lead medic in the room; Cranford, her name was. He couldn’t recall her first name, and hoped that was due to whatever had happened to him.

He brought his focus back onto Medic Cranford. She was in her middle years, stout and strong, still slim of figure. She moved with purpose and stood next to Kaylene by his side. She was speaking, though it took him a moment to sort out her words.

“… his head. He’ll be fine now, though it was a nasty hit and he’ll be feelin’ it for some weeks I imagine.”

He had no doubt she was right; his head hurt fit to burst, and his stomach churned as he willed it to quiet. “How long?” he tried to ask. What he heard was little more than an incoherent slur.

“How long?” he tried again. This time the words were recognizable. Kaylene’s eyes had widened at his slurred speech, but Cranford seemed to take it in stride.

“You’ve been out the better part of a day, and scared me with it y’did too. That was a nasty crack on the head. Found you myself, lyin’ sprawled out on the steps right by the door, bleedin’ something fierce an’ a big stone fallen right from the roof beside you. Turns out the cut was worse than it looked, but y’got a good crack on the skull. It ain’t broke, mind you, but you’ll be feelin’ like it did for a while.”

“It’s a good thing you’re so hard-headed, Altman. Never thought I’d have to admit to it bein’ a good thing, mind!” Kaylene smiled reassuringly. “We’ll have you out of here in no time.” Her eyes, chestnut brown in a heart-shaped face, warmed him and soothed away the pain.

“She’s right, Mr. Dolet. You’re in better shape than poor Claver. Oh don’t be so worried,” she exclaimed, seeing his eyes widen. “He’s recoverin’ fine so far, and we’ve kept his arm free of infection. But he’ll be long in the healing, as we discussed the other day.” Her voice dropped low as she said the last, casting a significant glance at the far side of the room where Claver lay. His arm was immobilized, held fast with a series of strong, thin brass rods wrapped tight to upper- and fore-arm with wide leather belts to prevent movement. He looked to be asleep, or unconscious.

“And Mitchell?”

“He was fine. Just a li’l cut on ‘is arm is all. Painful mind you, he won’t be cuttin’ any trees any time soon I’m afraid, but no permanent harm.”

Three accidents in two days, two serious and one hardly worth mentioning. And the message. He’d almost forgotten the message; his head was still a little woozy. An ugly suspicion began to take shape in his mind then, and he closed his eyes. “Claver, is he awake? Can I talk to him?”

“’Fraid not, Mr. Dolet. He’s in a lot of pain so I’m keepin’ him on the poppiate.” Derived from poppy flowers, poppiate was a very effective — and popular — painkiller that in large doses was a powerful sedative as well.

“And Waldon, then? When can I go? I must speak with him.”

“You can go now if you must, though I’d rather you stayed. You ain’t gonna do that though, are you.” It wansn’t a question.

“No, I’m afraid not. Dearest, with your help…?”

Kaylene shot him a glance and took hold of his arm. “I’ll help you up and get you moving, but only to take you back to your own bed. If you need to talk to Mr. Sias, I’ll bring him to you!”

“That … that would be a relief.” His stomach was doing somersaults within him and he felt he must be showing a spectacular shade of green on his face. “But first I’d like to examine the stone that fell and hit me. Is it still where it landed?”

“The stone? Yes, it was there last I saw it. What of it? I told you when we moved in that roof was in need of repair.” There was some heat in that last.

They passed through the central hall and out the doors into the fresh air; it did wonders to clear his head. The stone lay near the top of the staircase in a small pool of dried blood.

He sucked in a breath and let it out slowly. He knew stones well; any geoscientist worth his salt would. He knew their composition and colors, their wear patterns and the effects of tools upon them. He knew their cuts and cracks. And he knew this was no stone from their house; it was too new, too unmarked by the elements. This was a stone from the tower construction site.

Someone had dropped it on him intentionally.

<> <> <>

After some heated debate, Kaylene and Altman stood near the scene of Mitchell’s cutting accident. There was no sign of Waldon or his workers. “The sun is high; they may have stopped to wait out the heat and take lunch?” It was hot, even in the shade of the trees.

 

“Likely.” It was indeed likely, but Altman still had a bad feeling that had nothing to do with his injury.

“Indeed they are.” The voice, male and gruff, came from behind. “Mr. Dolet, I’m delighted to see you up and about.”

Kaylene whirled around; Altman turned more slowly. The figure was large, though not so large as most of the workers Sias had hired. He was clothed as they were, save a large dressing on his left arm. “Ahh. Mr. Mitchell. I should have guessed. I got the message you left … both of them, in fact.”

Mitchell’s eyes narrowed. “Ahhh. Yes, I am sorry about the latest … message. I’m afraid it’s cold comfort, but that wasn’t intended specifically for you. You surprised me in leaving your usual rounds so early, you see.”

“You monster! You set that up? You could have killed him!” Kaylene felt like she wanted to rush forward and crush him herself, but Altman was leaning too heavily on her shoulder.

“Come now, it was little more than a demonstration of … bad luck.” Mitchell seemed unphased by Kaylene’s anger. He almost seemed to take satisfaction in it.

“Why? What do you stand to gain? What do you hope to accomplish?” There was something tugging at a corner of his mind, but he couldn’t put a finger on it.

“I simply thought you’d be easier to deal with in the absence of your work crew, of course. I have a business proposition for you, Mr. Dolet, and it is not for the ears of others.” He radiated supreme self-confidence. “Your lady-wife is free to stay, of course.”

She nearly did break away from him then, and he found he had to hang on to her before she subsided.

“You have some nerve Mitchell,” she growled.

“Indeed you do. I’m afraid I’ve very little interest in doing any sort of business with unknown men who start their bids with crude traps and attempted murder.”

“Unknown men? I am insulted! Why, Mr. Dolet, we have done business before.”

Altman looked closer; the tugging at the corner of his mind grew more insistent. He did look familiar, though the clothes were wrong, the manner, and — the face! He wore a short trimmed beard now, with the mustache shaved off. Take the beard away and … Yes, he was the spitting image of his last electrite client.

The pieces clicked and clattered in Altman’s head, tumblers falling one by one into place. “Of course. You’ve changed; you were so much better dressed the last time we met. I like the beard, it’s a nice touch.”

Mitchell nodded with a sardonic smile and Altman began to pace up and down what would soon be the road. “May I assume you’re dissatisfied with the quality of the electrite? Feeling overburdened by the safe handling and storage of it? You’ve come for a refund?” He didn’t buy it for a second of course, but he wanted to keep Mitchell from leaving, or from doing anything rash. With just a little luck, he thought, mouth twisting at the irony.

“Mr. Dolet, please. You’re brighter than that. You know as well as I do that I want more. A lot more, in fact.” His words were pleasant and his mouth was smiling, but his eyes were cold.

“And you expect me to give it to you, just like that.”

“Yes, I do.” The voice had followed the eyes; flat and cold. Now we’re coming to it. “And as to your next question, no, I won’t be satisfied with more samples, Mr. Dolet. I want it all. I want to know where you get it from.”

Altman froze and tried very, very hard not to let his shock show on his face. Kaylene openly gaped, but thankfully Altman’s pacing had taken him to Mitchell’s far side and he wasn’t facing her. He didn’t know! He was standing less than 500 meters from a potential mother-lode and he had no idea!

He cleared his throat. “That’s a pretty big request, Mr. Mitchell.”

“You misunderstand. It’s not a request. It’s a demand, and I’ll have it met.” His dark eyes were ice as he spoke, his posture threatening. It would have been intimidating but for the faint but familiar sound of footsteps coming around the path from the clearing. Waldon Sias and his men.

“You seem confident, yet here you stand, unarmed, and you’ve given no reason why I should—”

Mitchell dipped a hand into a pocket then, and Altman found himself facing a tiny pistol that looked no less deadly for its size. Kaylene dropped into a half-crouch, an odd sight with her long dress. The look on her face as her eyes focused in on Mitchell would’ve kept the strongest man from laughing.

“This should do for the moment, Altman. You don’t mind if I call you Altman, do you? As for the longer term, it would be unfortunate, don’t you think, if the Conclave were to learn of your little enterprise?” Sias’ footsteps were a bit louder now but still too distant for him to be of any help, and neither he nor his men would be armed.

Altman frowned. He’d half expected the Conclave threat; they were the highest scientific order in the land, and held a monopoly over most vital resources. That included the one other large source of electrite known, and all but the smallest other known sources as well. They wouldn’t be happy to learn of a source of this magnitude less than a week’s journey from their citadel in Holdswaine if it were already claimed, and worse, Altman had not yet legally claimed it as that would have drawn the Conclave’s attention firmly onto him. Mitchell might not know the source was right here, but with the Conclave actively investigating, they’d find it in no time.

“The Conclave’s attention would be unfortunate, yes, but that’s as true for you as it is for me. You could tell them, but you’d never see another scrap of electrite from my source if you did.”

Kaylene was moving now, whisper-quiet, holding the hem of her long dress inches above the ground so it wouldn’t betray her by dragging over leaves or rocks. Altman held his breath. Mitchell seemed to have forgotten she was there.

“You needn’t worry about my dealings with the Conclave; let me worry about—” And that was as far as he got with that thought as Kaylene tackled him from behind. Her arm crushed round his throat, choking him, while the other grabbed his gun arm, swung it to point harmlessly into the treetops above. A jerking motion caused him to let out a strangled cry and the pistol flew from his fingers to land against a rock on the ground. It fired, a sharp, cracking report that scared off every bird in the canopy.

Altman rushed forward as Mitchell pitched forward and Kaylene pinned him to the ground. The faint, distant footsteps became the pounding of many running feet. Seconds later Waldon Sias burst onto the scene, followed by a good half dozen of his men. Mitchell, red-faced with rage, growled out “Get them!”

In less time than Altman could process, 2 of the workers accompanying Waldon had pulled pistols of their own, larger than Mitchell’s had been. They stepped back out of the group and spread to either side of them. Everyone froze, Waldon and his men too shocked to do more than stare in disbelief and growing anger at supposed friends.

Mitchell spat out a mouthful of dirt. “You couldn’t be so stupid as to think I was here alone? Now, release me!”

Kaylene reluctantly backed off; Mitchell rubbed his jaw and awkwardly got to his feet. “And now Mr. Dolet. I will have that location, or people will start dying, not just having … accidents.”

“Accidents?” Waldon’s face had turned a deep red at the words. His voice could have come from the darkest of storm clouds in the sky. His remaining men’s faces had darkened dangerously.

“Keep your eyes on them.” Mitchell spared Sias a contemptuous glance and grabbed his fallen pistol before returning his gaze to Altman. “So what is it? You’re in an awful hurry to build the road and get the docks and market up. Is it a merchant, then? I’ll have the name, or—”

Waldon Sias chose that moment to decide he’d had enough. One huge arm rocketed out, catching the nearest traitorous workman square on the jaw. He was a huge man himself, but Waldon’s blow felled him like a tree. Taking their cue from their leader, the four workmen turned their attention to the second gunman. He quickly fell under a few well placed blows without a shot fired.

Mitchell growled and shifted his pistol’s aim straight at Waldon. Altman didn’t think, he just reacted, taking several quick running steps to the side. Kaylene’s eyes widened and mouth opened in a shout, or a scream. Mitchell’s gun sounded far louder this time as it went off, Altman’s shoulder exploded in pain, and the ground twisted itself up to slam into his head.

A few moments later, after the world failed to dissolve around him, he felt hands helping him up. Mitchell was … was … “Wh … Where’d he go? Can’t let him …”

“Don’t you worry none about him, Mr. Dolet.” Waldon’s voice was hard, but as reassuring as the arm he had supporting his uninjured shoulder. “We gotta get you back to the medics again. Mitchell ain’t gonna be a problem, believe me. My boys don’t take too kindly to people playin’ with their work like that, let alone their lives. They’ll see to it he don’t try anythin’ else.”

Altman thought about that just long enough to decide it was probably better not to think about it too hard. “Good.”

With Kaylene on one side and Waldon on the other, he retraced his steps back to the medic’s wing of the house, stopping just outside the doors. It was the spot on which Altman had been struck by the stone.

“Altman.” Waldon looked very pale; Altman saw a dark, glistening patch on his shirt. The stain spread over a good part of his body. “I heard some of what Mitchell was goin’ on about. You got somethin’ to hide here.”

Altman nodded slowly. “Yes. There’s not much point in denying it, is there?”

“Nope. Just wanted to say you don’t have to worry ‘bout my boys ‘n me. We don’t know much, and what we do know, we’ll help you protect. Most men … They’d expect a man in his pay to take a bullet, not risk ‘imself like you did. You tell us what needs doin’, we’ll see it done.”

“So, my dear, you learn to relate to the men in your employ at last. There’s hope you yet!” Kaylene opened the doors, and the three disappeared inside.