Posting chapters from NaNoWriMo will hopefully introduce some accountability. Honestly, though, I still don’t anticipate much success. Guess I’ll see.
STAR-CROSSED AND HELL-BENT
Lored was sore, that was clear.
Not his arms, of course. As he hammered away on a pair of new scythes, the old man’s muscles looked as sturdy as ever. His mood, however, left much to be desired. He had a short, squinty, weathered head that was slowly being swallowed by his enormous white beard, which in turn was slowly being swallowed by his swelling shoulders. Barrel-trunked and bandy-legged, the years had shaped Lored into a creature perfectly fit for his job and nothing else. The sun had been up for just over an hour, and already the blue bandana across his brow was dripping into his eyes. Sometimes Eilee figured that was what made him squint all the time, but then Lored was a naturally suspicious and angry man, so perhaps not.
Lored took a half-step back and grunted, his usual signal. Eilee took the first scythe blade carefully in her heavy leather gauntlets and carried it over to the water trough, dunked it, then set it on the sheepskin to wipe it down with an old, crinkly cloth. It would be a bit yet before the second scythe blade was ready, and she fought the urge to sigh or yawn. Lored did not take kindly to unnecessary exhalations.
Even after four years, it rankled her at times, taking orders from a man. It was an outdated prejudice, she knew, and Lored had proven himself with over thirty years of reliable smithing, and Eilee was certainly not about to advertise her annoyance, but still. There were times, in her cups, when Sara and Neeve claimed that she would bewail her misfortune for hours at a time, but Sara liked to exaggerate and Neeve could not be trusted on anything outside stargazing.
There were certainly times, at the beginning of her apprenticeship, when Eilee would offer a condescending eye, and many of the questions she asked were more aimed toward Lored’s credibility than her own education, but the old Smithy made it plain soon enough that she could follow commands or follow the hot air out the door. So she swallowed her pride. It would not be long now before she herself would be the town’s smith. Lored was an old, frugal man, and would no doubt long for quiet and comfort soon enough.
Lored straightened his back. He took off his leather gauntlets and tucked them into the hempen belt that wrapped around the leather apron that comprised most of this clothing. He snorted. It was unusual for the old smith to stop in the middle of his work. Belatedly, she followed his gaze.
The smithy was a three-walled wooden hut with a steeple roof, the open end allowing the heat of the fires to easily escape. The opposite end led to a shack of middling size that featured two cots and a small table with three books on it. The books were Eilee’s; like most of the villagers, Lored could not read. In fact, Eilee spent half of her evenings at her parents’ home, who had no apprentice of their own. They were jewelers, hiring strangers to carry their goods to and from the nearby city, paying them so well and so frequently that none had ever thought to rob or cheat them. Eilee had it in her mind to become a goldsmith and improve their family fortune further, but of course there were no goldsmiths in town, and Eilee had no desire to move to the city, so Lored was a welcome compromise. The Rubier family were no Elders, but they had not suffered want in over five generations. Suffice it to say, she was familiar with the trappings of wealth.
It was not until she spied the two strangers outside the smithy, however, that Eilee truly understood what wealth was.
They were a man and a woman, the latter pale as milk with golden hair. Each wore a great silver crown in the shape of a rising sun, bedecked with rubies, sapphires, topazes, and gold ingots. It looked as though a passing god had flicked her jewel-encrusted fingers to dry them off, letting the riches land in a still pool of moonlight. Around the man’s neck was a thick silver chain with carbuncles woven into its links. They both wore long robes of some material that looked like silk, dyed a light blue with a lilac tint. It was not true purple, but even a lilac tint would cost a small fortune. The woman wore a black tunic beneath her robes, the man a blue jerkin and belt of gold medallions. Their trousers were gray, their boots black. The simplicity of their inner wear gave the impression of deliberate ostentation, of trying to display wealth beyond their means, but even that vain display was more than anyone in Bluefield had seen in their lives. Eilee wondered if this were a queen and her king come to call, though the man looked more richly dressed. Besides, royalty would have brought an entourage and guards with them. These two were alone.
Actually, not alone. Blinded by their finery, Eilee had not noticed little Zia the Healer’s apprentice, standing between and behind them. In his dun-colored tunic and green trousers, he looked like a servant’s servant next to these strangers. Just now, he was continually running his fingers through his greasy dark hair. Zia had been enamored of Eilee for a while now. He was an apprentice for a great Matron, but even this could not grant him the courage to make an overture to her, and she had no desire to make that endeavor any easier for him.
She wondered if Zia had brought them to the smith, or if he was just drawn by curiosity. Either way, he had dropped from their attention like rain off a tin roof.
The man spoke first, in a polite baritone. “Greetings, smith. We have come seeking a demonstration of your skills.”
Lored’s normally gruff demeanor seized and stiffened, and he raised his eyebrows in a disarming manner. “Good morning, m’lord,” he growled, which for Lored, was rather friendly. “I’m in the middle of finishing a scythe blade, if that’s demonstration enough for you.”
The man nodded to the pale woman before continuing, “I am afraid I have more exotic fair in mind. My companion will show you.”
From within her robes, the woman produced a small bar of steel not much longer than her hand. It was enough to forge two more scythes in a skilled smith’s hands, but more importantly, it had a brightness and a shimmer to it not seen in the cheap steel of provincial villages. “I imagine this is not enough for a sword,” she said. She looked around the room as she spoke.
“’fraid not, m’lady. I could make some shoes from it, or a scythe or two. I haven’t made a dirk in some time, but one of them could do.”
The man glanced over at the dry scythe blade. “I see you have a fresh… that is a scythe, is it not?”
The lord clapped his hands together. “Excellent. Make us one of those, and we shall… compare notes.”
“Aye, m’ord. Right away.”
Lored held out his hands and accepted the bar with a notable delicacy. Eilee had already donned her gauntlets and grabbed the tongs, but was disappointed to see that the smith planned to handle everything himself. He set the kettle in place and gently set the bar inside before it had a chance to heat up. He stood, watching. Silence followed.
Zia decided to make his presence known. “We were at the execution this morning.”
“Aye?” Lored’s glare made it clear to Zia what he thought of the apprentice’s comings and goings, which was little to none. He offered the foreigners a more deferential glance, but seemed loath to intrude on their business.
“A horrible fate,” the lord nodded, before adding, “but then, it seems he was a horrible man. He lived here for some time, yes?”
“Aye, m’lord. Born here, in truth. Then he took off some years back to live in Top Hill with that wife of his. I reckon she died before he returned. Dyer, he was. Learned it in Top Hill, I think.”
“A dyer? I cannot imagine there is much use for such here.”
“T’ain’t much use for jewelers neither, m’lord,” Lored said, jamming a peremptory thumb at Eilee. “That one’s parents been doin’ business with the city for generations, though. Reckon old Ulvis must’ve been doin’ the same.”
Zia interrupted, as was his wont. “I heard it was all a fake. I heard he was an alchemist, mixing unholy chemicals and such, just pretending to be a dyer.”
“Aye, and he rides a calf over the moon and dances in mushroom circles and turns little children into goblins.” Lored spat, in his own smithy, in Zia’s direction. “Only t’ain’t no goblins about, nor calves, nor mushrooms. What’s he doin’ with his evil mixtures, Zia? Where are they? Did they kill old Matron Yoolis?” He snorted. “Ulvis ain’t never mixed no potions or poisons. He was a dyer. Now he’s a dead dyer.”
The lord raised an admonitory finger. “Do you mean to say he was not a witch? He was falsely accused?”
Lored tensed, his bushy head drawing even further into his shoulders. “The Faith knows better than me on that, m’lord. All I say is he was a dyer. He dyed them stoles the Matrons wear. Perhap if he had dyed more for the Elders, they wouldn’t’ve condemned him to death.”
The lord chuckled lightly at this. Yet there was something in his smile, a sharpness, that made Eilee wonder how sincere his mirth was. “You think his guilt was determined by his generosity?”
“Not all that die are guilty,” he answered warily, “and not all that live are innocent.”
The lord’s smile grew thinner as he glanced at the pale woman. “Die and dye. How clever. A poet and a smith. How is the metal coming?”
Lored looked into the kettle. He kept staring as he said, “Eilee, get the fire going.”
The fire was quite hot enough, even if she had neglected it since the scythes came out. Eilee glared out the corner of her eyes as she inspected the kettle. There, sitting at its center, still perfectly solid and shimmering, was the steel bar. Eilee took down the bellows and got to work.
Without thinking, Lored started speaking to the pale woman. “Forgive me, m’lady, this may take some time. Perhaps you’d like to visit our tavern or speak to the Faith about Ulvis. Your scythe’ll be done before the hour’s up.”
The woman glanced at the man before answering, “Would the Faith know much about Ulvis?”
“Don’t know, m’lady, but they condemned him, they had him killed. Didn’t mean to be rude, m’lady. If Ulvis interests you, the Faith is where I’d go, but perhap you’d rather a more pleasant time. I hear there was a singer come through town a few days ago, could be he’s still at the tavern. Or not.”
The air seemed tense and uncomfortable for a space, but the lord broke this spell with another smile and another clap of the hands. “A singer sounds excellent. Come Shienna, let us explore the town.” He walked off without another word. The pale woman, Shienna, looked about the smithy again before following him off.
“The fire seemed hot enough to me,” Eilee insisted, still working the bellows.
“Aye, you’re not wrong.” Lored thrust his hand into his great white beard to rub at his hidden chin, as he sometimes did. “City steel must be harder stuff. Castle steel maybe.”
“Maybe it’s foreign!”
Eilee looked at Lored. Lored looked at Eilee. Together, they turned their heads to find that Zia was still there, still watching them.
“Maybe they’re from Jehinna. I hear there’s a lot of pale folks there.”
Eilee and Lored glanced at each other.
“And how ‘bout those clothes? They look like queens and kings, but here they are walking about by themselves. I heard in Jehinna the roads are paved with gold. Say Eilee,” he rambled on, his excitement mounting, “what did you think of those headdresses? Did you see all the gems?
Lored reached for the bellows, but Eilee nudged him away and continue to stir the flames. She glanced away from the kettle to see Lored actively looking for a way to ignore Zia.
“You really think Ulvis is innocent?”
Lored snorted again. He reached for the second scythe blade, but it had grown cool. “No, he’s guilty a’right, just not of what they killed him for.”
“What do you mean? What did he do?”
“He picked up something in Top Hill, maybe from them two witches he had with him. Reckon the Faith was happy to ignore it as long as he threw a stole their way every once in a while, but he must’ve said or done something and finally they wouldn’t tolerate him no more.”
Zia was shuffling forward a little each time he talked. They were now standing on opposite sides of Lored’s anvil, the anvil that would one day be Eilee’s. It irked her.
“What’d he pick up? Some sort of magic wand? An evil book or something?”
Lored looked about for a distraction. “How’re the flames comin’, Eilee?”
She only then noticed the torrent of sweat that had coated her face as it swept down to her jerkin. The fires were roaring. It had been hotter, once, the first time Lored left her unsupervised, but she had fed a lot more wood into the stove then. She put more in now. “It’s not melting.”
Lored grunted and shoved her out of the way, something he had not done in years. Eilee was about to object, but the shock on his face quelled her. “I ain’t never seen this,” he muttered to himself. “Sure looked like steel. Over-polished, maybe, but still steel.” He grabbed the bellows from her and began pumping furiously.
“What did Ulvis pick up in Top Hill?”
“A swat on the head!” Lored bellowed. “And that’s what you’ll get if you don’t bug off. Ain’t Matron Marrow got a use for you today, or do the Healer’s apprentices work on their own time?”
Zia shuffled his feet, shrinking into himself. He looked mournfully at Eilee. She looked back at the kettle. “Good bye, Zia.” She assumed he left, but no footsteps could be heard over the flames.
“More wood,” Lored grunted. Eilee fed more into the flames. Hotter and louder the flames became. Lored was as shiny as the steel bar, sweat coating him all over, and Eilee felt likely to collapse any moment, sure she had sweated off more than she had in her body. In her mounting delirium, she thought of the mythical dragons of the north, giant lizards with fire for breath, who melted the armor of mighty warriors that set out to slay them. When they ran out of fuel, Eilee stood staring into the flames and imagined the stove twisting into great metal jaws, a hungry dragon ready to devour them.
It was just over an hour when the two foreigners at last returned. There was a second woman with them, as richly dressed as the pale Shienna, but with a beat up leather satchel in her grasp. Both she and Shienna were looking about furtively, but the lord was smiling at ease when he approached. “Ah,” he offered, “is this my scythe, smith?”
Eilee was shivering. A few light breezes had played across her sweat-encrusted skin, driving chills through her. The fire had died, the week’s fuel was gone, and some of the new steel was now coating the bottom of their half-melted kettle, but gripped in Lored’s shaky hands was a shiny scythe blade. “Aye, m’lord.” He held the blade out to them.
“Excellent.” The lord nodded to Shienna as he took the blade. From her robes, Shienna produced a small bag that jingled merrily as she handed it over to Lored. He opened it at once, and his eyes grew wide. “This is all silver?”
“It is,” Shienna said. “Might we have one of your own scythes as well?”
“Of course, m’lady.” Lored nearly knocked Eilee over as he lurched to his own new blade and handed it over to the pale foreigner.
The new lady set her satchel at her feet, and they held Lored’s blade between them. The lord held the new blade up like a sword and struck it harshly against Lored’s blade. Lored’s blade bent under the pressure, and a deep cut was bitten into it. The new blade still looked pristine. The foreigners shared a glance, then reversed their practice. The new blade was struck with the slightly warped blade. The new blade did not bend, nor was any mark left.
Shienna grabbed the blades and dropped them. “This proves nothing we did not know already. I still say numbers are what determine a victory.”
The lord bent down and picked up the blades. He held out the bent blade in his left hand, then the new one in his right. “Yes. Numbers. But against this, even three of these is not enough.”
Shienna did not answer. He handed the blades to her, and she accepted them grudgingly.
Lored thrust his hand into his beard again. “You’re satisfied?”
The lord grinned again. “Some of us are.”
“Did you learn what you wanted about Ulvis, m’lord?”
He did not answer right away, but his words were casual and dismissive. “We visited the tavern, as you suggested. Lovely music, in a quaint sort of way.”
Lored shrugged. “I cannot vouch for the singer, m’lord. Thank you for the silver. Thank you heartily. Is there anything more I can get you?”
“You’ve done enough.” His words were friendly, but the three of them were already walking away, taking the satchel and the scythe blades with them. Lored was still rubbing his jaw as they left.
Eilee thought again of the metal dragon she saw in her delirium, and wondered if that was what the hells looked like. “Lored, sir.” She did not call him ‘sir’ very often. “Why do you think Ulvis was crucified?”
She had wanted to watch the execution, but Lored gruffly declared it was provincial nonsense, and insisted they stay and work, even though their workload was light for the week. ‘Provincial nonsense’ was an odd term he often employed. Lored was born and bred in Bluefield, and as far as she knew, he had never set foot outside the village limits. Even when the Blue Wood was open for hunting, Lored got his meat from others who bartered with him for arrow heads or horseshoes or knives. Eilee had been to Top Hill once as a little girl, and Zia had dragged her to the Southern Edge two or three times, trying to impress her with his tedious herb lore. She had even visited the great city not six years past when her father had heard his wares were being sold for ten times his own price. It was then she decided to become a goldsmith.
That a pure provincial would remark so often on ‘provincial nonsense’ was odd, but Lored had always considered himself more worldly and cunning than other Bluefielders. Perhaps he was. “Never mind his potions and poisons. Ulvis had a cat in his home, I’ll bet.” He dragged a battered old stool from a corner and collapsed onto it. “Top Hill’s just an hour from the border. The southern border. Sunderland’s full of cat worshipers, and a lot of folks say Top Hill is too. Why else would a dyer be so greedy with the local Faith? He hated the Great Wheel, I’d wager.”
Eilee did not know what to say. She had heard of cat worshipers of course. She had never seen a cat, but they sounded like small, unimpressive creatures. It was said they could suck your soul out of you while you slept. But during the day they were quite powerless. That anyone should fear such a beast, let alone worship it, seemed ridiculous to her. Yet being able to actually see and touch the object of your worship was perhaps helpful. Thinking of the Great Wheel in the village circle and the Twelve Angels that accompanied it, Eilee could sense some sympathy for those with a tangible god.
Lored grunted again. He was staring at the empty fuel bin. He might have been a second away from a sigh, but then he looked to the bag of silver in his fist. “Looks as though we’re out of work for the week,” he said. “Go on home.”
Eilee was still holding her arms and shivering as she passed the Great Wheel. It was nearing noon, and she wondered if a meal and a blanket might await her at her parents’ home. Casually, she looked about the village as she walked, hoping to spy a glint of sunlight on a silver crown, or the striking image of a lilac robe, but there was no sign of the foreign visitors anywhere.
Sara and Davad were standing atop a great scaffolding that had been erected in the village circle, along with two large beams. Eilee nodded to Sara with a faint grin, but Sara appeared not to be in a friendly mood. Standing next to a bloody corpse no doubt had such an effect on people, but Eilee was now possessed with dreams of food and warmth. The light breezes washed away her phantasms of metal dragons and devilish cats, and she smiled despite herself.
On the breeze was carried a single low, anguished moan. Eilee looked back over her shoulder at the hanging corpse, but did not break her stride.