“Thus at the flaming forge of life
Our fortunes must be wrought;
Thus on its sounding anvil shaped
Each burning deed and thought.”— Henry Wadsworth Longsfellow
The winds fussed and fought over the fallen leaves, sweeping their clutter into piles and then scattering them anew like old maids quarreling with their broomsticks over the same dust in the same dirty kitchen. It was Autumn in the village of Kilne and cool winds blew often through its valley. Yet, Kilne was warm, as it always was as it sat in the tall, smoky shadow of the Mumbling Mountain. The lava floes beneath the earth kept it warm. They also kept the grass burnt brown at the mountain’s base and the trees coated in gray soot moss that coated all bark old enough to have a beard. The crooked crowns of the trees were bereft of their Summer coats. The shortened day slowly surrendered to night.
The blacksmith Blake— known to the people of Kilne as Black Blake— walked out of the furnace heat of the caves with a hankering for a mug of beer to drink and a leg of lamb to chew. He looked down the rolling field leading away to the thatch-capped, vale-village of Kilne. There he saw his small cottage where his wife Joanna awaited his return. He thought of his gap-toothed wife and frowned, then looked to the opposite end of the village where Marlowe’s Tavern awaited him. There, Olga, the tavern wench, had more than likely already filled his usual mug with the bar’s thickest, darkest brew—and had pushed her large bust up and out for his eager appraisal.
Blake’s eyes flitted between the two ends of the village, briefly, then settled on the Tavern, whereupon his long legs began their lecherously cheery gait in that direction, heedless of winds or of wife or of anything else that might have been agitated in this small part of the world. He ran a hand unmindfully through his black mane. A cloud of soot lifted from it and his bright red hair shown through like a flame to match the dusk. Hands black, he wiped them on his britches and ruminated, unsure whether he wanted to touch the wet mug first or Olga’s gold-freckled rump.
“Why not both?” he said, then laughed at his own knavish wisdom and whistled a roguish song as made his way down into the darkening valley.
Joanna held the iron frying pan over the little log stove, keeping Blake’s potatoes and beans warm as she waited in the little cottage. Every now and again she would look at the door, expecting it to burst open with a bang— for Blake never did anything unless dramatically— and to see her tall, handsome husband come sauntering in like a lord over his many-splendid lands. She hoped he would come sauntering in and not staggering in, which had often been his drunken manner of entrance lately, if he had the habit of coming home at all.
No! She told herself that Blake would not do that again, not after she pleaded with him yesterday with her eyes blurred by the rains of her heart. He would come home any moment, and he would want a hot meal after a long day forging in the Mumbling Mountain.
As she held the heavy pan above the stove with one hand she used her other hand to poke and prod the log in that iron-belly. Nearly everything in her home was made from iron, most of it fashioned and furnished by her father. He had built the cottage itself, too, and the tables and the chairs. Joanna missed her father— the diligent old man dead but last winter— and she regretted not having listened to his warnings about Blake. The only thing in the cottage that her father did not have a hand, or both hands, in the making of was the frying pan atop the stove. Blake had made that heavy, crudely dented instrument himself. And the only reason he had made it was to satisfy Kilne marriage custom.
And the only reason he had married Joanna was because she would not be wooed and won any other way.
Olga was brimming out of her top as her big lips puckered and popped on Blake’s bristly cheeks. Blake liked how her corset made her gold-flecked cleavage swell as if to explode from her bodice. He leaned back to take the third swig of his fourth beer, then leaned Olga back and kissed her so long and so hard that she herself became half-drunk from his liquor-heavy breath. He gave her ample rump a pinch as she sat in his ruttish lap. He was perched precariously atop a stool. She giggled and wrapped her arms around his head, pulling his face to her bulging bosom.
“Of’ Black Blake, I do love you furiously!” she said
“Aye,” he rejoined, muffled between her breasts. “And I love yer girlies here.”
There were few men in the tavern. Most of the men of Kilne were blacksmiths, and because they were blacksmiths they had hard work to do during the day. Having little more energy than to stop by for a hasty beer at Marlowe’s, they drank it quickly and then set off for home to collapse on their beds and drink from that dark, deep mug that is called Sleep.
But such habits were for men of diligent habit within the Mumbling Mountain, and Blake did not hammer metal with the same speed or dedication as the other men. He had energy in ample stock, having not squandered it in the daily pursuit of a living. He spent it how he saw fit. As a consequence, the wares he made were few and often needed reworking, which meant he made but little in recompense. Even now he was down to his last coin, a copper he had palmed from the old and senile widower, Boyle, who had worse sight sober than when drunk.
The heavy pan hurt Joanna’s hands, and her wrist and her arm and her shoulder. Not only heavy, the pan possessed a handle neither smooth nor grooved correctly for a hand to hold without cramping. A good grip could never be got on the ugly iron. Joanna’s father had looked upon the instrument and averted his eyes, shaking his head to rue all the things his naive daughter had not seen in the character and reputation of her husband. Such flaws and vices were evident in the pan, wrought as it was from indolence, incompetence, and unconcern.
Kilne marriage custom was founded on pragmatism, as were the Kilneesians themselves. The father of the intended bride gave the intended husband a core of iron ore to forge whatever thing he best thought befitted his betrothed and her standing in the household. Many men of Kilne forged practical items for the household, such as utensils and candle pans and lamp stalks, and these practical men were of a heart that such practical gifts did not demean or belittle their wives; rather, these utensils were forged with the utmost earnestness of skill and talent with which the blacksmiths’ years of forging had endowed to them, knowing the efforts well placed for the sake of their beloved wives.
Blake was not like any of those men. He had tasted the skin of too many women by the merits of his own charms. When the time came for his binding to Joanna he did not bother to forge something beautiful or practical, but forged a wretched pan to fulfill the ritual. And in the depths of his indolence he had fashioned a pan fit for neither the hardened hands of a troll or a giantess, let alone a young maiden like Joanna.
Upon their wedding night Joanna learned firsthand that Blake would treat her as he treated the creation of that pan; an afterthought, roughly handled, and only as a means to an ends that he himself was never sure he wanted, but attained out of impulse rather than pause and reflection.
“My lil’ rabbit,” he called her, and she was cut to the quick by that dubious title of endearment. For Joanna’s front two teeth were spaced apart like a rabbit’s and her cheeks were rounded as if full of chewing greens at all times.
And yet she bore all of these hardships in servile silence.
“You will rue fancying his face so much,” her father had said to her before his death.
“All I ever wanted was something pretty for myself,” she said to the empty cottage.
Marlowe stood behind his bar with a cloth in his hand, polishing the mugs and glasses he had gathered from around the tavern. His patrons were evanescent, buying a drink, drinking that drink, and then leaving with little more than a grunt goodbye. He surveyed his tavern’s interior now with a shrewd eye, seeing more shadows than drinkers. With the exception of a few men finishing their beers in the far corner, Blake and Olga were the only people animated the moody tavern with any life.
The ruttish couple made enough noise for a dozen people, though, and probably would have scared off a few potential patrons had there been more in the drinking den. Marlowe watched them warily. He always ignored Blake’s liberties with Olga so long as they were reciprocated— that is, if Blake paid his tab on time and in honest coin. Everyone in the village knew Olga, and they all knew how she fancied Black Blake. What they also knew— and what Blake himself did not know— was that Olga fancied just about any man with a wife waiting for him at home. It was her way. It was also Marlowe’s way, for the promiscuous barmaid fetched him more patrons for his pocket than his bitter beers ever could.
When Blake stepped out to use the moon-door, and Jon Rubburn came in through the sun-door, Marlowe expected trouble. Blake and Jon were men of the same mind, and the same appetites. Marlowe put down his mugs and rag. He fetched a quill, ink well, and parchment from under the bar. He was ready to tally damage. Dipping the quill, he waited for Blake to return.
And then Blake returned, greeted with the sight of Olga sitting in the lap of Jon Rubburn while Jon pawed her like a mountain cat besetting a sumptuous fish.
“What’s this here now?!” Blake demanded.
“We were just getting acquainted,” Jon said calmly, ignoring Blake’s wrathful expression.
“We were just acquainted last night,” Olga said, rather innocently for someone so experienced in the world.
“And we will acquaint ourselves again tonight, my dear,” Jon remarked with a laugh.
Blake’s face was ruddy as blood, and he blustered for a livid moment before he could force the words out of his beer-baffled mouth.
“Get yer’ smooth-hands off ‘er!” he roared.
As for Jon, he did not enjoy his hands being insulted. In a village like Kilne, where nearly everyone blacksmithed,“smooth-hands” was a pejorative paramount to having one’s own parentage questioned.
Marlowe braced himself behind his counter, the quill dripping black ink already. He was adamant about listing the damages and accrediting them meticulously to each individual responsible. He was a professional businessman, after all.
“Say yer sorry,” Jon said, “and make yer way home and I’ll let them words slip me mind.”
Jon pushed Olga up and off of him, then stood himself up from his stool to his full height. Much like Olga, the swells of his chest seemed ready to burst out from his shirt. He was sculpted of an agile granite that flexed, expanded, contracted, then expanded again. A bear might grapple with him and regret that boulder-bodied embrace.
Marlowe looked from Jon Rubburn to Blake Blackholme, and found a disproportion of size on one side. Now Blake was a tall man, like Jon, and had a nimble grace when sober. But Blake was not honed and toned and boned like Jon from work in the forge. If Blake was a Saddlebred showhorse, then Jon was a Clysdale workhorse.
So it was no surprise to Marlowe when Jon stood to face Blake that Blake did the only reasonable thing to remove himself from a situation where his doom was preordained while simultaneously not retreating home with his tail between his legs. He took the nearest mug of muddy beer he could find, swigged it to its dregs, and then proceeded to pass out onto the Tavern floor.
Jon, for his part, was very flabbergasted— he was not a smart man, truly— but soon he lost interest in Blake as Olga took him by his waist and ushered him upstairs to her bedroom.
Marlowe sighed in relief, put away his ink well and quill and parchment and then walked around the counter and dragged Black Blake outside. He would have thrown Blake outside, if only because it was traditional of tavern owners to do so, but his old back was in no shape for the effort. Much to his relief, there was no one to witness his shame in failing to fulfill his vocational expectations.
Often during the day—and in the eveningtime, or indeed anytime when her husband was gone while hour usurped hour in quiet solitude— Joanna would find herself overcome by the frets and the melancholies of her life. This was not good for her, and she knew it was not good for her, and so she exorcized these persistent demons by her only available means: cleaning the cottage. She cleaned and she wiped and she swept and she dusted, often the same area many times a day. She swept the wooden floor until her broom’s bristles were rough and frayed as a witch’s nose hairs. She polished the utensils and the iron stove until she could see her reflection in each inch of dull, dark iron. She dusted the white walls so much that their plaster finish thinned, revealing the ash-and-mud bricks just beneath the crinkly stucco veneer.
Joanna, herself, was nearly as worn to the bone as the walls by her wring-handed worrying and work.
Unlike Olga, Joanna was not buxom. Standing side to side to the big-busted barmaid, Joanna would have pleaded pity for her modest deficiencies. She was willowy and wan, winnowed each day by an ascetic diet and the pumice soap she made to wash her husband’s effects. She was dedicated to saving whatever was left of their diminishing stores for him, and consequently denied herself much in the Autumn months, and much more in the Winter months. She justified this lopsided allocation by telling herself that Blake worked in the mountain forges, and so earned what little money they had (meanwhile neglecting the fact that he also wasted what little money they had). Though she saw to their garden herself, and the emaciated livestock in their possession, she was very traditional in her view of the world— very religious in the Matharist manner— and was obedient and selfless toward her feckless husband, no matter how much he squandered of his meager earnings on mug and gamble and scheme.
When Blake awoke some minutes later, he found himself sprawled out on the grassy lawn beside the water trough for Marlowe’s horses. A long-faced mare stared at him curiously with dark eyes while a stallion high-stepped about in a strut that seemed to challenge the newcomer to a shin-kicking contest. Any other day Blake might have, in his pride, taken up the stallion’s challenge. As it were, he was not so sure he could stand long enough to take a kick to the shins, let alone stand on one leg to dole out what would be his due.
Cursing, Blake pulled himself up to his tottering height and, in a staggering daze, walked home. As he walked his inebriation wore away, bit by bit, foot by foot, and as it gave way to the stark cruelty of sobriety— with its encumbering thoughts of shame and vengeance—he grew angrier and angrier as he approached the cottage.
He hated that cottage. It was a baleful sight. He hated that his father-in-law built it. He hated it now as it sat calmly, awash in moonlight, silent as his father-in-law’s contempt. He hated how sturdy it was and how well-kept by his wife. He hated that he did not build it himself and he hated that it was, by rights of marriage, his cottage. It would be better belonging to some other man, just as he thought he would be better belonging to a grandstanding castle.
He kicked the door open and stomped inside, dropping himself down in a chair at the table. Joanna hurried to him with the pan of food, still steaming after having spent hours simmering atop the iron-belly stove. It had cooked to mush.
“This is what ya’ greet me with?!” he roared, standing to his full height. “Mushy beans and blanched spuds? It ain’t fit enough for the hog! Where’s the meat at, ye’ ungrateful woman?! Where’s the gravy and the sausage?!”
“We haven’t the coin for such things,” Joanna stammered. “You know we haven’t.”
“Do I not provide enough for ye’?” He swung his body around, almost as if in a violent pirouette, to gesture to the whole cottage. “Are ye’ sayin’ I ain’t workin’ hard enough? Well, ye’ royal highness, why don’t ye’ just walk yerself up to that Mountain and you beat on anvils all day and pull glowin’ metal from the flamin’ floes! Why’don’ya’ blacken yer face with soot and smoke and let yer’ cheeks get kissed by the sparking embers that burn like a wyrm’s fire! I’d bet ye’d want to have a nice meal waitin’ for yer return from that oven! I promise ye’, ye’ would!”
Joanna looked away, out the window and in the direction of the Tavern. The window was made of frosted glass— distorted as if by ice and fog— and she wondered if Winter would see them starving in their bones. She wondered, too, if that blurry view of that frost glass was how her drunkard husband saw the world when in his bottle.
She whimpered a plea. “Perhaps…perhaps if you did not drink so much…”
Blake grinned vengefully at her as he fell to lounging lazily upon the chair. He leaned back, legs spread expansively with his bad posture, and pierced her with a mercilessly appraising eye.
“Why does any man of the world drink so much?” He suddenly sat up, rigid with anger as he raised a fist. “Work and wife!” He slammed his fist down on the table, rattling the plate of beans and potatoes. “Hard work and a homely wife!”
Suddenly he shot up from the chair, grabbed her about the shoulders and ushered her roughly toward the drab bed in the corner. She went unresisting, but also unhappily, and fell upon the stiff mattress with her grandmother’s quilt beneath her. Blake swooped in atop her like a hawk upon a rabbit, slavering kisses on her face and neck and chest. Many of these wet maulings did he give, lost to his slapdash passions, until he abruptly stopped and looked at her. She lay rigid beneath him, yet trembling, nor in anticipation or passion, but for dread of him, her eyes clenched shut in horrid resignation and the tears letting out on her cheeks.
“What is the matter with ye’?” he demanded.
“Nothing,” she whispered, meek as a mouse.
“Nothin’? And yet ye’ have about ye’ the look of a ghost. I’ll not have it, ye’ hear? Do ya’ want me or no?”
“I am…I feel…” She struggled for an excuse, but could not lie— she had not the art nor the acting for it in her soul— nor could she speak the truth: that her husband, even pretty, filled her with dread. As it so happened, she did not need to speak any, for her pale face spoke all.
Sickened, Blake stood up and, letting go a frustrated sigh, walked out of the cottage, slamming the door behind him.
Joanna wiped her cheeks dry with her callused hands, then went to look out the door. Her husband was gone, disappeared into the moonlit night. After dumping his mushy beans and spuds to the hog, she ventured out, too, into that starry gloom. She sought the small temple of Mathara that sat in the center of the village of Kilne.
She hurried past the many cottages of her neighbors, their warm-windowed eyes judging her as she went. She wished her cottage knew only the trivial griefs these cottages knew, for they might then judge her much less harshly. Though it shamed her to admit it, she was of half a mind that she would have rather been a widow than married to the notorious ne’er-do-well, Black Blake.
To a stone temple she came, its golden steepled dome shimmering in this dark hour. To the sliding barn-like door she came, and she pounded on its heavy oak with her small knotted fists. There followed a rattling within, and the door sliding open to reveal a huge hearth-fire— known as a “Heart-Fire” among Matharists— distantly inside. A voice called out to her.
“Joanna Blackholm, is it your hour of need?”
Joanna glanced behind herself, in the direction of her cottage, expecting to see Blake stomping and stumbling out between the cottages.
“My husband…Blake…” she said.
“A dark hour indeed, my child,” said the man within the temple. “Please, come in. All are welcomed within Mathara’s warm embrace.”
Blake did stomp and stumble his way between the cottages, and up toward the Mumbling Mountain. It was hard to say what was on his mind except, perhaps, a vague sense of impugned honor. He had a hopeful notion of forging a double-headed ax and returning to Marlowe’s to threaten Jon Rubburn with it, scaring him out of Kilne forever, and then reclaiming Olga’s bedroom favor for his own. He had another notion to simply lay down with his head cradled in the roots of a tree and fall asleep until some better day would come, with either wishing or wanting or dumb blind luck.
The truth was that Blake did not care for Olga very much herself; he had had her several times already in his wild youth, before her breasts had begun to sag and before his marriage to Joanna had begun; and the truth was that once Blake had slept in a woman’s bed it would quickly lose all its rakish comforts and pleasures, impoverishing any further visits afforded to him.
Black Blake’s problem, so far as he could acknowledge to himself, was that he did not know what he wanted in life. He knew only what he did not want in life, which was the life that he had. He looked up at the Mumbling Mountain and saw its dark shadow veined in orange forges.
“That, too, is something I do not want.”
The mountain range behind the Mumbling Mountain were known, collectively, as the Grumbles. Deep within their black rock bones were magma floes and natural smithy fires which the men of Kilne exploited for their forging. The Grumbles were also rich in ore deposits, so a blacksmith needed only dig a few yards from a smithy fire for his material when he required it. The blacksmiths had to be careful, however, for digging without proper forethought might lead to tunnel collapses. Preventing such collapses was the job of the Overseers, though those three men could have cared less if all of Kilne was buried beneath the Grumbles.
“What’s this ‘ere now?” remarked Daryld, the shortest and most senior Overseer. He saw Blake approaching the entrance to the Grumbles, and grinned a black chewmoss grin. “Has Black Blake returned to earn ‘is beer for the evenin’?”
“More like earn his drops of beer,” said Ganth, the second tallest Overseer. “He ain’t gonna’ get hisself more ‘n that for ‘is bent pieces of meh’al.”
The third Overseer, whom everyone called Onx, muttered something unintelligible, then laughed in a gravelly coughing sort of way. Onx was the only one to laugh, being the only one who could make out what he had said, and Onx could have not cared less. All three Overseers were of a troll’s rough and piggish features, but only Onx was an actual troll. His tusks were fat and broad as they jutted out of the corners of his lips, as if he had just eaten a cow and the only part not swallowed were the poor animal’s hooves. Speaking with such tusks was a fruitless endeavor, for the tusks stretched his mouth to utter uselessness, and yet he mumbled all the same. His broad and burly body had muscles stacked atop each other like rocks and were covered in hair that was like moss on stone, leaving only his hands and a small portion of his face— lips to eyes—bare. When he walked his huge feet left prints with every step, regardless of whether he was walking on dirt or rock. And Onx was considered a runt within the troll race.
“Just forgot mah gloves,” Blake lied. “Gonna’ go get ‘im ‘fore they disappear on me.”
“Why’d they go and disappear on one such as you?” Daryld said, spitting black chewmoss from his mouth. “Leastways with you they got themselves a long life ahead of ‘em. Ye’ ain’ never used them for much, have ye’?”
“I’d bed they’re softer ‘an the skin o’ that wife o’ yers girly rump,” said Ganth. “Though nothin’s so soft as yer hands.”
Onx grumbled something unintelligible again, and then laughed, and it sounded as if the rocks of the Grumbles were slip-sliding across each other.
Blake cursed Daryld and Ganth and even Onx (beneath his breath) and passed into the elaborate tunnels spiraling up and down the burning insides of the Mumbling Mountain.
“Every man has within him a demon that is part of him,” the priest told Joanna. “Some men have one and some men have many. To destroy such demons is to destroy the man, for these agents of evil are as much part of what makes a man himself as his flesh and his blood and his name.”
Joanna sat across from the priest of Mathara, a garish candle on the table between them. The candlelight made the priest’s hooded face a thing wizened by deep-wrinkled shadows.
“And a man may be ashamed of his demon,” the priest said, “but being ashamed is not enough to purge himself of his demon. He may only ever aspire to overmaster his demon’s mischief, with the proper guidance, until the demon is nothing more than a distant voice quickly silenced upon its urgent utterance.”
“I don’t think Blake is ashamed enough to do anything to silence his demon,” Joanna said sadly. “He doesn’t even seem to realize he does anything wrong.”
Within the shadows of the priest’s humble hood the golden scales of the dead dragon Gildread— set as a coronet across his clay-baked forehead— gleamed and flashed like a grin. Joanna did not like how the golden scales flashed at her.
“Purer souls may guide the wayward ones into the grace of Mathara,” he said. “A wife can only do so much for her husband, no matter how pure she may be. To exorcize a man’s demon’s requires the purity of a priest.” His eyes hardened upon her. “This is what arises from a life without Mass, child. He does not attend my sermons, and that is the root of the weed in his heart.”
“He will not listen to me,” Joanna said, staring at the dragonscale coronet. “I cannot force him to the temple every week, and I cannot persuade him. I haven’t the strength of arm or voice.”
“You do not attend my sermons, either,” the priest remarked. “Perhaps it is some demon of yours that prompts this visit tonight. Jealousy, perhaps? Womanly vanity?”
“I only want my husband to treat me well,” Joanna says, her eyes welling up.
The priest appraised her with unimpressed eyes. “The fires of Mathara shall cleanse all, sinners and innocent alike, until we are all as flighty ash to swirl upward into the upper spheres of Mathara’s kingdom. Keep this in mind come next Ash-Mourning. If you are not here, then I will know that you are not sincere in the salvation of your husband.”
The priest gestured toward the door, and so Joanna took her leave. She was eager to go, for she did not think she had received useful counsel and, moreover, she was weary of being chastised by men. As she walked toward the sliding door the priest walked after her, closing the door behind her.
In the sigh of air that escaped from that temple, and into the starry night, she caught the whiff of the priest’s Gildread gold coronet. It stank of putrefaction and ash, said to be the most singular stench in all the world. It reminded her of the legends of the Grumbles and of the Gildread family that lorded here:
Once upon a time a golden dragon lived among the Grumbles. Its name was Gildread and it was one of the largest dragons in the world. Most legends state that there were many an aspiring lord that took his army to their doom in the vain hope of killing the dragon and harvesting its golden scales. Only one lord succeeded in the dragon’s extermination. He was a petty lord, with but a weak claim to a stretch of wastes on the Northern side of the mountains. To the astonishment of many, he triumphed in slaying the dragon with nothing more than an army of ill-equipped peasants and a handful of mercenary wizards. Thereafter he took the title “Gildread” from the beast, becoming Lord Gildread, ancestor to the Lord Gildread presently indenturing the blacksmiths of Kilne in his mountains.
Since then the gold harvested from the dragon’s body has been known as “Gildread gold” and has been prized by the aristocracies and the priesthood, despite its enduring stench. It was said, among the peasantry, that Gildread gold was cursed and corrupted anyone it touched. Joanna’s father believed this true, but Joanna was not so sure. Sometimes she thought it merely attracted people who were already corrupted.
As Blake walked toward his forge he saw several blacksmiths sitting in a circle, a lamp between them as they shuffled and flipped and fanned cards. There was a small pile of dark copper coins next to the lamp, each coin dark as dragon droppings with soot.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen,” Blake said, squatting down in the midst of them and eyeing the coins while thinking of all of the beer he might buy with them. “Is it a card game open to anyone?”
“Open to anyone with an open pocket, Blake,” replied Trenton, a man well-acquainted with Blake. “And so not to one such as you.”
There was a general grumble of agreement from the cardplayers, which Blake naturally took umbrage to.
“What’s this now?” he demanded with a sneer. “Me money not good enough for the likes of ye mighty lords?”
“No money’s good enough that is made of more promise than copper,” said Milden, who had been swindled by Blake before. “Show us yer coin and we’ll let ya’ wager it, otherwise be off with ye’.”
They all eyed him, then, waiting for him to produce the coins they knew he did not possess.
“What’s the matter, Black Blake?” the old man Gansel asked. “Lost yer coins between Olga’s tits again?”
Blake gave them all his most curdled snarl, then stood up to his gangly height and spat. “One o’ these days you’ll all wished you’d treated me with more respect.”
The other blacksmiths chuckled as they hunkered around their cards.
“Oh?” said Trenton. “What day is that, Black Blake?”
“The day I become a lord o’ these lands,” Blake snapped.
The cardplayers burst out into laughter, rattling so hard that soot fell from them in clouds. Blake’s ashen complexion reddened nearly as crimson as his hair, yet he could only stand there, stiff with anger and humiliation.
Trenton was the first man to regain his composure enough to speak.
“I donna’…I donna’ care if ye’ find another golden dragon like Lord Gildread did…and I donna’ care if the poor lizard is sufferin’ from the gout and a case of the shaky-bones! I donna’ care if ye’ find a whole army of fools and fool-wizards to help ye’ slay the beast! Ye’ ain’t gettin’ rich off nothin’ short of a miracle!”
“Ye’ just wait and witness,” Blake retorted. “I’mma’ be as rich as Lord Gildread someday, and when I am ye’ll be beggin’ to lick me boots clean for one o’ me gold coins and a curt How-do-ya-do?”
Milden just grinned ear to ear and shook his soot-skinned head. “Even if ye’ managed to get as rich as Gildread ye’d drink yourself to rags again within a week. Ye’ know it!”
Joanna walked home like a woman having just lost her newborn. She wrung her rough hands as if she held in it her own quickening heart. As she wept in the stelliferous gloom, a voice like dry leaves suddenly called to her.
“What troubles ye, child?”
She looked up from her frets and saw the widow, Brigid Emberson, sitting in a wicker chair, knitting a scarf. Her gnarled hands were like two large spiders wrangling each other with the needle and thread.
“My husband is truer to his vices than his virtues,” Joanna said.
“And what are his virtues?” the widow asked. It was too murky to know whether she was smirking or not.
“He is…” Joanna began to say, then fell silent. “He is a bonny man,” she said at last, miserably.
“And is he still a bonny man?”
Joanna began to cry. “Yes.”
“Then he is still true to his virtues,” the widow concluded, cackling.
“Must you be so cruel to me?”
The widow stopped knitting. She raised her good eye at Joanna, and its gaze was sharp and sparkling, like a polished needle piercing the dark. Her bad eye— milk-white and wandering— was looking toward the Grumbles. “Ye’ get what ye’ bargained for, me poor bunny.”
Tears streaming down her face, Joanna turned away and started toward her cottage.
“I didn’t give you leave, child!” the widow called after her. “It seems to me your problems is a disproportion in your husband’s making!”
“There is no good in talking,” Joanna sobbed.
“But there may be good in remembering.”
Joanna stopped walking and graced the old woman with a backward glance through her veil of tears.
“Come sit by an old woman,” the widow said, “and fetch her out of her wooling when the time’s right.”
What Joanna really wanted was her father. But since he was joined to the floes in the mountain— as all Kilne’s blacksmiths are when they have passed away— she came and sat down in the grass next to Brigid Emberson.
“Everyone in this village knows each other’s secrets,” the widow said. “It’s expected. Naturally they’d all know of me doing me husband in, even that idiot priest bundled up in his idiot robe. Naturally you’d know of it, despite your greenness. I don’t excuse it. I killed my husband with a bit of root and a lot of beans, and I’d make no claim otherwise in a trial by man or by gods. He was a mean bastard, he was. The only thing I regret was the mess he made when his idiot noggin fell into his bowl. And if anybody were to speak truer of it, they’d say he deserved a worse death. I still ain’ got sight back in my one eye, so hard did he knock it.”
She pointed with a taloned finger to her lazy, wandering eye with its empty gaze.
“Now, I’d also be lying if I said I never missed the cruel bastard. I do miss him at times. But do you know what I do at the times I miss him?”
Joanna gave a sheepish shake of her head.
“I strike me’self in the back of the head and then ask me’self, ‘Well now, my bunny, are you missing that?’” The old woman shrugged her shrunken shoulders, smiling toothlessly. “And of course I don’t miss it at all!”
“But I don’t want to…do away with my husband,” Joanna protested. “I love him.”
“You ain’t listening to the words between the words,” the widow chastised her. She shook her head and her white, thinning hair flitted briefly in the air, before settling down like ash flown from flames. “My husband would never of changed. The violence was in him, and always would be. Now I have my husband where I like him, trapped in me head where he can’t a hurt me…unless I let him.”
Brigid Emberson smiled to herself, then resumed her knitting with her gnarled hands.
Joanna felt sorry for the widow, and because she felt sorry for the widow she thanked her for her company and her “thoughtful words”. Then she left toward her cottage, feeling more disturbed than ever before.
“There has to be another way over this mountain,” she said to herself, wiping away her tears. “I just don’t have the map.”
The Mumbling Mountain’s fires never died, day or night, and so a group of blacksmiths were always working into the Witching Hour in the vain attempt to outstrip their debt to Lord Gildread. Blake walked by these desperate men with a supercilious sneer on his face.
“What good is it, boys?” he muttered. “Chains on two fronts. And none of ye’ can magic ‘em away, I’ll wager.”
At night the tunnels in Mumbling Mountain were as bright as they were during the day, which was like the soot that they spewed: pitch black. The only light breaching that vast labyrinthine interior was the orange glow of the natural forges and whatever lamps or candles the smiths brought about with them in their labors. This was why many of the blacksmiths waited until dusk to leave the caves, otherwise sunlight blinded them with its glaring stare. They also never left before dusk due to Lord Gildread’s stone-knuckled Overseers. The Overseers could be quite confrontational when a worker had the audacity to see to his family more than to his fire.
The tunnels were always dark and whatever light was afforded to them by the fires was diabolically orange and murky, transforming shadows and forms into otherworldly creatures.
Blake did not have a mind clear enough for smithing that night. Instead, he took up a pickax and found a cleft in a rock wall where iron ore glimmered through. Seeing it as a fortuitous opportunity to claim someone else’s ore for his own, Blake struck away at that jagged rent with half-spirited swings.
He picked at the rent for a while, cursing many a people he knew— Jon Rubburn for his big muscles, Olga for her big bosoms, Lord Gildread for his wealth and power over his life, and his wife, Joanna…for being gap-toothed and existing. One and all he considered part of a conspiracy to undermine him and his lofty dreams of being rich and having a harem of women to call his own. He even cursed himself, which was rare for Blake. He was naturally inclined to be so steeped in his own pigheaded pridefulness that he hardly ever reflected upon himself and his choices enough to rue their outcomes, or to learn a lesson. A mood most foul overcame him and it invited thoughts of mischief to his mind.
And thoughts of mischief always had a way of attracting others given to similar urges.
Joanna walked home with her head full of frets. She hated being overburdened with such thoughts. They pressed a weight upon her that left her enervated and inert. Arms hanging heavy by her sides, and head hanging more heavily, she distracted herself by opening an ear to the voices scuffling about inside the cottages surrounding her.
Joanna had lived in Kilne her whole life. She knew to whom each of these many voices belonged, having heard them since she was pushed and pulled bodily, and bloodily, into this world. From a nearby cottage she heard the voices of Kyle Burnes and his young wife arguing over the name of their impending child. Millia insisted that if the baby was a girl then she should be named after Millia’s mother, Margot. Kyle, being the Burnes heir, and so having the obstinance inherent in such a heritage, insisted that the baby be named after his grandfather, regardless of whether the baby be boy or girl.
Joanna felt sorry for any girl whose named was fated to be Hagar.
In Kilne, however, surnames mattered more than forenames. All of the ancestors of the men and women of Kilne came here uprooted from other places, where foreign names pervaded, and these fresh settlers wanted a new start by choosing new names in keeping with the fires of Mumbling Mountain and the tall peaks of the Grumbles, hoping to brand themselves with good future fortune for their families. There were Anvilles and Hammers and Blazewells and Firesides, Irons and Orrs and Craggs and Stones. Many were named Smiths, as was expected, and yet the families that claimed Smith as their own were as diverse in bloodlines as the blade of an executioner’s axe.
Joanna thought of her maiden name, Weldmoore, and wished she could reclaim it. Blake’s surname, Blackholme, was such an ominously prophetic name. It was as if Fate had warned her, as did her father, that Blake was not a man to marry.
Blake toiled in the infernal cave, picking away at the ore-embedded wall. As he worked, he cursed his life, never knowing nor caring how his life had cursed others.
Due to drink and carelessness and general ineptitude, Blake’s smithing abilities were meager at best, and atrocious at worst. Consequently, his home was the poorest in the village of Kilne because his debts to Lord Gildread were so high. The more ore he wasted with his absentminded tinkering, and the more such works were rejected, the higher his debts became. Blake’s own father had mocked him in his apprenticeship, saying that the ore looked better unclaimed in the cavern walls than it did after Blake had set upon it with hammer and anvil and fire. Nor did he squash that opinion in the years after his apprenticeship. This opinion prevailed, prospered, and multiplied, like termites in the heart of a tree, and Blake hated everyone but himself for it.
Blake could have been forgiven had he simply been incompetent. But he was also disreputable. He was not to be trusted. To the contrary, the people of Kilne knew well Blake’s drunkardly nature and eyed him as if a shadowy hand followed him, snatching goodness wherever he passed. Many were also jealous of him, for Black Blake was considered a very fair-looking man who had been lionized by the girls of Kilne when in the worshipful shamelessness of their teenaged youth. Many resented him for this, too, as he was well acquainted with many of the women in Kilne from those frothy years.
Yet, being what he was at that time, many of the wives belonging to those jealous and resentful husbands were also themselves resentful of Blake, having been wooed and won and discarded by him at one point or another. Many a buxom bosom in Kilne was a desk whereon Blake might nod off into Nostalgia, remembering his masterworks.
The only reason Blake had married Joanna— who was by all accounts a plain—was because she would not be swayed to bed without first being wed. Her chastity was as insurmountable as the Grumbles, and thus flavored her with a temptation that ensorcelled the young blackguard’s mind better than her looks ever could. Moreover, she was the only maiden in the village of Kilne that had never surrendered to Blake’s lascivious charms, and so he, ever brash and desperate of the futile conquest, surrendered himself to her for what was a pyrrhic victory on both sides of that wooing war.
“What a fool hunter ah was!” Blake growled as he chipped black rock from a nugget of ore. “That lil’ rabbit snared me and now ah’m stuck with her!”
Blake was wed and trapped by that compact, witnessed by the village and insured by the priest of Mathara and the laws established in the village by Lord Gildread. Worse, Joanna was wed and trapped, too, and so the naive girl was resigned to her gullible misjudgment. The difference was that Blake married her out of defered lust, whereas Joanna married him because she— a daughter of a very practical man and a simple life— fancied having something pretty for herself.
And Blake Blackholm was a pretty man. Whatever vices marred his character, every woman in Kilne agreed he was fair to look on when he kept his mouth shut.
Arriving home to her cottage, Joanna collapsed onto the hard-backed bed and covered her grief with her grandmother’s quilt. Crying beneath that quilt was like crying into her grandmother’s bosom. The quilt dwarfed Joanna. It was large, much like her grandmother was when Joanna was still a child. The old matriarch was a voluminous woman, accorded many pillowy curves in her happy, well-fed bulk. She would have been aghast to see her granddaughter now, a woman of skin and bones who often had to stitch her dress tighter lest it slip off her dwindling waist. Joanna could hear the gentle woman’s voice as she wept:
“How are ye’ goin’ to beget hale, bonny children with no baby fat of yer own?”
These thoughts, and more, were a tumult in her heart. Eventually— after much crying and regretting— Joanna was subdued by the warmth of the quilt and slipped into a dreamless sleep.
A flashing gleam caught Blake’s eye. He glanced over his shoulder and saw, in the firelight of the tunnels, what appeared to be smoothed glass entombed in ore. He blinked and looked again, and surely it was there. For the next hour Blake was as careful as he had ever been when handling a pickax. Slowly he chipped away at the rough rock until, at last, with callused hands and busted knuckles, he dislodged the glass anomaly among the iron ore.
It was a glass bottle.
Moreover, it was a glass battle filled to its cork with a golden amber liquid.
“Really good moonwater here,” he announced to himself. Then, suspicious that someone might see his find, he slipped the bottle behind his leather frock, securing it between his belt and his trousers. He then went to find a forge far enough away from the rest of the workers so that he might look at his find and determine what it was.
Crouching down in a corner of a cavern, he took out the bottle and stared at it in wonder. An orange flame gleamed on the bottle, like a shooting star sliding across the glass. It reminded Blake of Olga’s coquettish grin—and the grin of every woman he had ever bedded—and suddenly the only thought in his head was how warm a draught of that golden moonwater would be in the pit of his empty belly.
“Ah can take it,” he whispered. “Whatever the poison, ah ain’t no jelly-belly. Ah got me an iron gut.”
With one hand he grabbed the bottle by its long neck. The body of the bottle he pinned between his bony knees. With his free hand, he wrestled and twisted and pried the cork out. It was hard doing, and eventually he tired of it and so dared using both hands on the cork. It popped with such a sudden force that the bottle shot out between his knees and fell with a skittering clatter on the rocky ground. Fearing he had lost half the moonwater, he hurriedly scooped the bottle up with his frantic hands. He peered into the bottle’s mouth and saw the liquid sloshing around inside, grinning as he thought himself lucky for not having spilled any. When he upturned the bottle, however, and pressed its lips to his, he tasted nothing except a faint cold air coming from the dry lips of the bottle.
“What devilsomeness is this?” he cursed.
Raising the bottle to the other eye, he gazed into its amber depths again. The golden liquid sloshed about upside-down freely, but refusedto spill out of the unobstructed neck.
“Fool’s gold if ever I’ve seen it!” he cursed.
He brandished the bottle as if to throw it into the nearest flame, but was given pause when a glint on the lips of the bottle caught his eye. He looked at the lips of the bottle instead of looking through the lips. The glass lips were rimmed with an iron ring, both thin and shiny. Bringing it closer to the glow of some nearby flames he saw that it was inscribed with several tiny runes that he could not discern.
Fetching a pair of tongs, Blake gradually pried the sealing rim away from the bottle’s virgin lips. The ring fell away, and with it a thin lens of glass so clear and immaculate that it was invisible. He pinched the seal between two fingers and then pocketed it.
“A gift for me lil’ rabbit!” he said, grinning harshly. “Will be a great thing to see her tryin’ to put it on her ungrateful finger and failin’ at it.”
Then up came the bottle in Blake’s impatient hands. He kissed it with a lusty mouth and a quickened pulse. It burned like sunwater more than moonwater, gushing down his gullet and running like wildfire through the dim passages of his brain, setting it aglow with wonders unknown to the neglected ruins of his imagination.
“Well now,” he said, breathless. “That’s a fine fire in me head and belly!” He stoppered the bottle, doffed his apron, and rolled it around his newfound treasure. He suddenly looked around at the ore and the forge and the anvil and the hammer. Then he looked at his hands. “And what’s this? A fire in me hands, too! They’re itchin’ for somethin’ naughty of a different nature! Aw’right, boys. Be not idle!”
Daryld was standing with the other overseers at the mouth to the Mumbling Mountain. He was trying to be courteous to Onx while the troll explained to him the finer subtleties of troll courtship rituals and the joys of family life beneath the earth’s surface. Unfortunately, everything Onx said sounded like stones grinding in Daryld’s ears. He nodded. He smiled, as much as a man like Daryld could smile, and he rarely spat his chewmoss out, so as to be polite. But, at the end of it all, it was still just stones and rocks and tusk-on-tooth scraping.
It was no wonder, then, that when Daryld heard the shouts coming from inside the Mumbling Mountain he mistook them for the cries of men crushed beneath a rockslide or cave-collapse. A troll’s voice had that effect on people. But then Ganth went running into the forges, which Ganth would never have done had it been an actual cave-collapse, and so Daryld concluded that it must be a matter of interest rather than a matter of peril. Onx went thundering into the cave, too, and so Daryld knew he simply had to go in now or else be left standing outside alone, looking foolish. It was a matter of pride. He was, after all, the superior rank of the three.
“Does nobody round ‘ere have respect for rank?” he growled, spitting black chewmoss juice out.
Picking up his club— which he had carelessly laid leaning against a rock— he went running into the cave also, though he kept his distance from the excited troll. No one ever knew what a troll might do when excited, even a troll of inferior rank.
Blake wore neither his leather frock nor leather gloves, nor did he fear spark or flame or red-hot ore as he worked. The flames and the ore did as he desired, as did his hands, and he worked while the late-night blacksmiths remarked in astonishment at his miraculous skill.
“Magic,” Trenton gasped.
“Witchery,” Milden hissed.
“Devilry,” Gansel growled.
Yet, they all watched Blake work the ore, and all were full of awe and wonder and resentment as his uncannily deft hands moved the iron with his tongs and hammer in a perfect creative concert that molded and formed the ore as if it were as soft and malleable as clay.
“No good can come of this!” Trenton said.
“There’s a bargaining he’s made, to be sure!” Gansel said. “With dragon or warlock, I don’t know which.”
They could scarcely believe what they saw, even as they saw it. They called to others to bear witness to it: Black Blake, who in years past shirked forge and fire for fear of his own sweat’s salt, was now undoubtedly the greatest blacksmith among the whole of Kilne.
“Watch yer’selves, boys!” Blake said, pouring liquid metal into the icemelt. It hissed and sighed and he did not retreat from its dangerous steam. “Don’t go throwin’ yerselves into the floes for envy’s sake!”
“Envious of ye’, Black Blake?” Trenton said. He opened his mouth to laugh, but found there was no mirth or mockery in his soul to call upon.
“Ye’ should be envious ‘cause ah lay this ore down right,” Blake said, “just as ah laid down yer wives right and smoothed them all over with me hands and me big tool!”
Normally, Kilneesian men would not abide such flippant speech about their wives— especially since it was ribald and it was true— but there was something about Blake’s eyes, and his laughter, and the work he was doing, that stayed their injured honor.
The Overseers arrived at the large crowd gathered at Blake’s busy forge. Irritated by the lollygagging, they shouldered their way into the crowd of blacksmiths, gesturing brusquely for their departure; pushing and shoving and cussing.
“What’s the matter with ya’ ore-pourers?” Ganth demanded. “Get te yer forges ‘afore we snap out the whips!”
Daryld, feeling as if Ganth was presuming too much authority in the matter, yelled even louder. “This funny business about yellin’ has got to stop! Yer gonna’ bring the whole moun’ain down…”
His cry of outrage quickly puttered out into slack-jacked dismay.
“Where’d ye get that handsome bowl there?”
“Blake made it!” one of the lingering blacksmiths said, gawping afterwards as he heard his own words echo in the cave and could not, even himself, believe them.
“Ain’ possible!” Daryld snapped. “Not for Blake. He ain’t ever made a bowl that was round or a plate that was flat in ‘is life. Nor nothing less dented than me mother-in-law’s warthog forehead.”
Onx—his beady troll eyes squinting even tighter with the pain of hard-earned thought— rumbled in agreement. “Argh.”
But the three Overseers watched Blake work the iron; watched him beck the flame and bathe the cast in water to cool its molded shapes and solidify the figure sitting aside the rim of the bowl’s mouth, and soon their naysaying was stayed by the evidence of their eyes. So astounded were the Overseers that they did not protest as the other blacksmiths of Kilne gathered again around Blake to watch him ply his genius. The whole lot of them were as wide-eyed as bunnies mesmerized by a basilisk’s hypnotic stare.
“Black Blake’s got himself a black magic gift,” they all agreed. Nonetheless, they could not stop watching him work.
It was near to sunrise when Blake finished and bathed the piece one final time. He had spent just over a few hours on the matchless treasure. The other blacksmiths would later claim—their eyes agog with disbelief—that it was a ludicrously short period of time to create such a masterful piece of craftsmanship.
And a masterful piece it was. It was a small bowl, modestly proportioned for a single morning melon, but it was immaculately smoothed both inside and out of its gaping belly. This silvery smoothness was, in and of itself, enough to separate it in quality from all other bowls made in the history of Kilne, but what truly distinguished it to such respectful reverence was the figure that sprawled in the center of the bowl, her legs spread and nude as a piglet after a heavy rain. The female figure bore a remarkable semblance to Olga, only younger, and prettier, and with an expression more overcome, in her innocent manner, than Olga ever had been since surrendering her maidenhead many years ago.
Blake gave the bowl to the Overseers, and they, for their part, were so fixated on the finely-wrought piece of worksmanship that they neglected to inspect him on his way out of the Mountain. Unimpeded, Blake started his descent toward his cottage. Coiled safely in his apron, the bottle’s sunwater elixir sloshed about within the glass as if alive.
Joanna was awoken by a light. When she sat up and rubbed her eyes, the light was gone and the cottage was plunged in darkness. She stared into the impenetrable shadows for a few moments before she realized someone else was in the cottage.
“Who’s there?” she said, alarmed.
“Yer much-maligned husband,” Black Blake sneered.
Joanna was no less relieved than had it been a stranger. She opened her mouth to say something, but refrained. She listened to her husband stumble through the cottage, banging against the table as he went and cussing. Yet he did not cuss as severely as he normally might. He seemed…reserved.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“Aye,” he said as he finally found the bed. He sat down, and Joanna squeezed against the wall, away from him. “What’s wrong is me life,” he said. “But I’ve an idea that things will be changin’ soon.”
He stood up and reached toward her. She flinched away, then realized he was not trying to touch her, but was grabbing the bed and pulling it away from the wall. He then reached over her and laid a bundle down in the widened space.
“Ne’er touch it,” he told her, “and donna’ ask me of it. Are ye’ goin’ to mind me in this?”
“Yes,” Joanna whimpered.
“Mind ye’ do, or ah’ll give ye’ even more gaps between yer teeth, my lil’ rabbit.”
These words uttered, Blake left the cottage.
Blake went to Marlowe’s Tavern…or attempted to. Halfway there he was suddenly overcome with the fatigue of his first miraculous day. With little concern for where he was, or who should mind, he fell to his knees next to a cottage and then slumped forward, fallen into a deathly sleep before his head hit the ground.
The sleep that took him was not so restful as the one that took his wife the night before, nor was it because all of Kilne busied itself around him throughout the daylight hours.
Blake dreamed. This was not unusual. Blake dreamed a lot, especially when in his drunken stupors. But this dream was different. There was no harem of women worshiping him bodily. In this strange dream he saw a fire. It was burning upon a hillside; tiny as a tick upon a dog’s head. Like a tick it soon swelled, gorging itself on the hill’s wildgrasses. It soon spread, scurrying quick as rodents across the land. There was no life where it went, and there were faces in the blazing ocean of it; leering, laughing faces with slit eyes and jagged teeth of flames. They ate whatever they touched, and when they met each other there was an explosion of lust, and thereafter they multiplied. Each face had a crown on its head, and each crown was a flame whose decree was destruction.
And then Blake saw this scorched land from afar, and farther still, as if viewing the inferno from the clouds, and then from the moon, and then the sun. The orb shrank smaller, even as it was consumed wholly by the flames and reduced to a burning shell.
When Blake thought he knew what was what, he then saw that the orb afire was encased in bone and muscle and skin and that blood ran through it, like rivers set alight with moonwater; and he saw then that it was his heart that the flames devoured so greedily. The flames enveloped it utterly, subsuming it inside outward. When he cried out, the flames ascended, rupturing forth from his throat and spewing upon the earth like dragon’s breath.
And when the flames had finished, the earth was just like his heart: burned to embers and blowing in the gulfs of space, lacking life and love and substance, floating aimlessly in the cosmic void whose yawning maw swallowed all unto insignificance.
Blake woke later to find himself in the Mumbling Mountain. He was preparing his kiln for the day’s work, and his mind was full of creative mischief.
Upon waking, Joanna found herself alone in her cottage. She glanced about the small interior, lit with sunlight through the frosted glass windows, and saw that it was orderly and clean. There were not even any motes dancing in the morning light. The air itself was clean, or as clean as it could be beneath the ash-flurrying Grumbles.
Not having any excuse not to, Joanna stood up, dressed herself appropriately— which, for a Kilneesian woman was drab and modest— and then joined the streams of Kilneesians flowing toward the Matharist Temple in the center of the village. It was time for Mass.
Joanna followed them as if in surrender to the eddies of their flow. Her mind was all awhirl as she was taken away. She knew she had become as gossip made flesh for her fellow citizens: Mrs. Blackholme attending Mass, with her blackguard husband beneath either the legs of a barstool or the legs of a barmaid. It did not matter, though—or so she told herself. The eyes of the crowd wryly watched her as she went with them to the temple, but her eyes were set on rescuing her husband from his own vices. She entered the temple and sat down at the wooden benches with the rest of the Kilneesians. The dark gloom of the temple, splashed waveringly with the orange glow of the Heart-Fire, distressed her. Shadows and fire— neither were to be trusted, she thought. Shadows were deceits made from truth, and fire was truth that burned and consumed. Neither were pleasant in overdue amount.
The priest stood before his flock and spoke at them— not to them, but at them. His sermon was a flavorless soup of moral lecture with chunks of historical lessons plopped in for solidity. As Joanna listened to the lecture she found herself dreading the priest. He was standing afore the Heart-Fire like an ominous figure, doubly robed in shadow and flame. His Gildread coronet flashed like a golden blade that was shifting hands beneath an assassin’s cloak. The words that dripped from his mouth scared her.
“Lord Gildread is good in all he has done,” the priest said, “as was his father before him, and his father’s father. The slaying of the golden dragon tamed this part of the world and made it a haven for all of those willing to prove their goodness and righteousness by the salt of their brows, the leather of their fingertips. Heed me: the sweat of thy brow is the testament to thy better nature. Do not succumb to idleness and sloth, for they are the damned things of perdition.”
Joanna looked away from the priest, her eyes wandering over the flock. Each face was familiar to her, yet alien now, transformed by shadow and by firelight.
“And be warned,” the priest continued, “that your actions in this life will affect your ascendency into the next life. For the flames of Mathara burn away what is profligate and sinful, leaving only what is good in one’s own heart. How much good is in your heart? This is what must be asked every day when you seek to serve Lord Gildread in his benevolent rule. If there is naught good in you, naught of you will persist into the next world…”
Joanna attempted to nanny her attention, but her thoughts strayed like naughty children in a dark forest. The priest’s sermon did nothing for her. Whatever flicker of faith she might have had in her youth had died with the last glowing embers on her father’s pyre.
Her father was a good man; a much better man than the one she chose for a husband. He had tried to convince her to recant her mistake, to divorce her husband and find herself a new, more deserving man. He reasoned that many women had done it, that it was very normal and common now, and that there was neither shame nor guilt in the dissolution of a loveless marriage. Hope, he told her, and joy and endless possibilities could be thereby suddenly reclaimed.
But Joanna was, like most Kilneesians, stubborn. She was also, in her own way, vindictive. It was a passive vindictiveness, but it prevailed alongside her stubbornness. However small and wormlike, it would never grant Blake what he most coveted from her: marital separation and the freedoms therein entailed. Moreover, she refused to separate from Blake because in such an arrangement Blake would have received the cottage her father built for them.
And that was an injustice she could not bear, even if it meant enduring a lifetime of injustices.
The young woman’s features were finely wrought upon the goblet’s stem as she flashed her coquettish smile. So, too, were her high breasts and cherry-nipples finely wrought. In fact, the whole piece was so finely wrought that any blacksmith worth his weight in ore would have thought it should break ere Blake had bathed it cold. But he bathed that bonny lass in the icemelt waters, and he beat the bowl and the foot with his hammer upon the anvil, and the figure hardened to form without hardening of feature, every soft detail preserved in uncanny relief.
“Impossible,” Daryld said as Black Blake handed the goblet to him. “It’s a deception of me mind on me eyes! It can be nothin’ else.”
Despite his disbelief, Daryld handled the goblet as a real thing and not a figment of his imagination. He carried it carefully out of the cave as if the air itself might somehow ruin it.
“Black Blake’s busy at it again,” grumbled Trenton. “Makin’ fools of us with his demonic powers.”
“I’ve half a mind to make ‘im mind,” said Milden, darkly. “Mind him with my mindin’, mind ye’.”
“Bold as brass, twice the ass,” said Gansel, puffing pensively on a cigar of soot moss. “Ye’ll never get at ‘im without gettin’ ye’self the more. He’s a golden gander now. No good will come to ye’ for it.”
“It’s golden goose,” Milden argued. “An’ the Overseers don’ like ‘im neither. What would it matter if he slipped into one of the floes?”
“Ye’d be slippin’ in, too,” Trenton warned, “if Blake had an accident. Gansel’s right. That’s Gildread’s golden gander. Or goose. Whatever. Might as well march ye’self to Gildread’s castle an’ take a squat on ‘is dinner table.”
“I overheard Daryld say Lord Gildread was mighty impressed,” Ganth said, smoking away at his cigar. “Gildread’s thinkin’ of invitin’ ‘im to the castle. Maybe he’ll get fool-drunk an’ squat on the table ‘imself…”
“Oh, that flares it!” Milden said. “I’mma’ gonna’ kill the bastard!”
“Let it go as it will,” Trenton said. “I am. I wouldn’t be doin’ nothin’ untoward…”
“What ye’ mean to say is ye’ ain’ got the piss in ye’…” Milden began.
“I got the piss in me,” Trenton snapped, “but I also got the sense to know when to step back and let a buck bleed himself good before I get near ‘is antlers. The arrow’s already in Blake’s heart. He just don’ know it.”
“Golden arrow,” Gansel agreed.
“That’s right,” Trenton said, “and if ye’ try to gut him right now yer gonna’ get ye’self gutted! Let ‘im earn the favor of our Lord and he’ll overstay ‘is welcome. That’s Blake’s way, sure enough.”
Joanna had never known her mother, except, perhaps, in knowing herself. Her mother had died bringing Joanna into the world. This guilt hung heavy upon her. Often Joanna wondered if she was destined to an unhappy life because of her deadly birth. Her father, contrarily, had said there was only one evil that had sealed her fate.
And that was in marrying Blake Blackholme.
Feeling that evil keenly, Joanna tried to find Blake. She thought to find him in town after Mass. This search, however, was soon abandoned when it proved as fruitless and futile as separating soil from cow pies. There were just too many beds, sheds, and steads where he could have spent the night. She never thought to find him working in the Mumbling Mountain; not that early in the morning. She knew him too well for that. Only a miracle, she would have said, could have propelled him toward the forges so early in the morning.
Thus, never finding him, Joanna was an upheaval of clashing thoughts and helpless desperation. Unable to bear it, she turned to the domestic chores to once again distract her head and busy her hands.
Arriving home, she found there was but little to do, having done it all the day before. But then she realized it was a perfect day for washing the laundry. So, she gathered up the dirty clothes and rags and linen and she put it all in her bucket and carried it out to the Ashen River. She was simply happy to have something to distract herself from her own unhappiness.
Kilneesian women all washed their soot-blackened clothes in the Ashen River. Its pumice-mingled water stripped stains. But neither man nor animal could drink from its gray-silt depths. A single gulp could “soil a child dead”, depending on the day and the weather. That was why the people of Kilne bought fresh water from elsewhere, trading for it at a high value. Most water near the Mumbling Mountains was not safe to drink. Even the rain, at times, burned hot as wax on uncovered skin. Even the icemelt was good for nothing but bathing iron and steel.
As Joanna walked to the Ashen River she found that she had not been alone in her chores today. There were other women there, washing their dirty laundry after Mourning-Mass while they traded dirty secrets. As they churned their clothes in the Ashen River— using long tongs so as to not damage their hands—Joanna listened nearby, astounded by their chatter.
“Sure as the sun in the sky and the mole on my thigh,” Janie Diggins said, “my Roderry was there to witness it. And ye’ know he never would indulge a fancy, ‘specially any buffing that wicked name, Black Blake.”
“Aye,” concurred Farah Coles. “I heard wind of it from me husband who came in with his underpants all twisted this mornin’. Sayin’ Blake had sold heart, home, or soul to some devil for powers beyond his merit. I would’na’ believed it if Sammy next door did’na’ swear the same.”
Maggie Spooner, the only unmarried maiden among them, scoffed. “Are they sure he didn’t steal the bowl?”
“Half the men in Kilne watched him make it,” replied Janie. “Unless it is a joke on the other half, and us women. It must be true.”
“I’d believe it a joke,” remarked Farah, flogging a wet apron with a spatula, “if my husband hadn’t the humor of an owlbear with its head on backwards.”
“And was it really an…an indecent woman?” asked disbelieving Maggie in a hushed tone.
“That part of the tale is the most steadfast with his character,” Janie said, ruefully. “If some god were to give Black Blake such powers to form ore as smooth as skin he’d never touch hammer to metal if not to have yet another girl in the bare air for his eyes and hands to pass over for a night.”
“Perhaps it was just a rare flare,” said Maggie. “One and done, they say about them.”
“I suppose we’ll come to hear of it,” Janie said. “They say the first ironwork hadn’t even cooled when he started on a second. Some sort of sister cup to the bowl. If I know me Black Blake, it’ll have another maiden in the bare air, but this time she’ll be encumbered with a bigger bust than she any right to.”
“It is a shame that Fortune should smile on him,” said Janie. “All our husbands return from the forges covered in soot, head to toe, and yet Blake is the only one black inside and out.”
“Ash-hearted is he,” agreed Farah. “Any flames he carries burns out ere long.”
Hitherto, none of the women working their tongs and tongues by the pumice-bedded water had noticed Joanna Blackholme standing, thunderstruck, but a few feet away. Shocked as she was, Joanna had the presence of mind, and the prudishness of character, to not be caught listening, uninvited, to a private conversation, regardless of its bearing on her own life and future. So she slowly stepped away, mindful of every fallen leaf, and made her way home to unburden herself of her unwashed laundry.
Blake had been working hard that morning, and had not eaten anything since the day before. His stomach attempted to match the Grumbles in its loud rumbling. He decided to take a break and go home for an hour to eat something. The Overseers made no protest.
“Let the bedeviled man have ‘is fill of food,” Daryld said. “Lord Gildread would have our skins if he died of an empty stomach.”
Walking downhill from the Mumbling Mountain, Blake kept his hand over his eyes to block out the baleful midday sun. His stomach was hungry and his head hurt. His chest burned a little, too, but it was somehow a reassuring burn.
“Need a bit of a bite,” he said to himself. “That’s all I’m hankerin’ for.”
But in his head he saw the bottle of amber liquid sloshing about as tantalizingly as a Southerlander woman half-clothed in silk and swaying her hourglass hips to a dance. If his brain could salivate like his tongue, it would have drowned itself in his skull.
“And maybe a drop of drink,” he added. “Jus to cool the natural fires of me heart.”
He hurried to the cottage with an eager, almost ghoulish gait.
“Look here, lil’ rabbit,” Blake said, holding the rune-rimmed ring to Joanna. “A present for my feckless, faithful filly.”
Much to his disappointment she took the ring and set it down on the table without a second glance, and nary a first.
“Blake, I’ve heard you are having luck in your ore-pouring. Is it true? Are you making your means with your mettle?”
He furrowed his brow as if a snake burrowed there. “What of it? Do ye’ doubt me? Then yer the same as the rest of the jealous fools hereabouts. Aye, they mocked me, didn’t they? Blackened my name, did me wrongs, and now look at ‘em! Jawing about me like the newly come wizard with a griffon on ‘is shoulder. They canna’ believe it, and yet here I stand, towerin’ above ‘em all and their pitiful pettiness and smallness and envy.”
“I meant nothing but joy,” Joanna said. “Astonishment, yes, but joy. You swell my prideful heart beyond temperance.”
His anger abated but briefly, until he glanced about the room for his lunch. “What ingratitude is this?” he said, dangerously quiet of voice. “What is this?”
“I could not find you,” Joanna said, her smile quickly fading.
“I sweat miracles in the hot, dark mountains,” he growled, “and ye’ laze about in shade of house with cool winds as yer handmaidens, and haven’t the decency of mind or of heart to spare a moment and cook me fill?”
“You wouldn’t have had it,” she argued, “as you never did yesterday. Beans or spuds, you’d have had none!”
“It seems I’ve work at home to do as well,” he said, ominously, “for the idleness of a woman is a mischievous thing not to be abided.”
Blake grasped Joanna by the wrist and raised his other hand, ready to let fall a thunderclap slap that would have laid her on the floor.
But there came a knock at the door.
The intrusion surprised Blake, taking him aback like the cracking of a branch in an otherwise silent woods. When his anger returned, it returned vengefully. Roaring, he sprinted toward the door as though to ram it down upon the oblivious visitor. Swinging it wide with a wrathful yank, he suddenly paused, eyes agog and his mouth chewing the air like a goat in a field of forget-me-lots abloom.
Standing in front of their house, in golden cape and cowl and vest, was the tall, looming coachman to the Lord and Master of the village of Kilne and the Mumbling Mountain and the Grumbles themselves: Lord Gildread of the Norland Kingdoms. Gildread’s own coach awaited beyond him, drawn by two thunderhooves as white as Joanna’s pale face.
“Blake Blackholme,” the coachman said, “your presence is demanded at Lord Gildread’s castle.” A gloved fist shot out from beneath the cape. Blake flinched, his hands raised feebly for mercy. The massive fist stopped within a flea’s hop of Blake’s face and parted open like a flower. Within the hand was a scroll bound in gold thread.
Blinking dumbfoundedly, Blake took the extended scroll and unfurled it. He read it once. Then he read it twice. Three times he read it before he turned about to face his wife with an expression of hateful joy.
“See ye’ here!” he exclaimed, brandishing the scroll above his wife’s head. “This is my summons to my fortune. Lord Gildread has already heard well of me and requests me to esteem him with me presence.”
“It is a demand, not a request,” said the coachman tersely.
“Just the same, just the same,” Blake said, feverishly gleeful. “Genius recognizes genius, and so I am called away for me Lord’s pleasure.”
In equal measure to Blake’s glee was Joanna’s terror. Nothing good came of a summons from Lord Gildread. It was a well known truth in Kilne.
“Naturally, Lord Gildread expects a gift to recompense his courteous invitation,” the coachman continued. “It would do you well to do well by him, Blake Blackholme.”
“Lord Gildread is of a mind mirroring me own,” Blake said, “and since the two of us mirror so well, I know just such the gift to appease his tastes. Let us stop by the forges along the way…”
Blake followed the coachman, closing the cottage door behind him with a victorious bang.
Alone now, Joanna listened with dread as the wheels of the coach clatter-clacked away and up the Mountain. It was all too overwhelming for her: the revelations of Blake’s newfound talents, his sudden violence, the interest of Lord Gildread, and the sudden departure of her husband before she had shelved these things neatly in her head.
So rattled was she that she fell to cleaning the cottage again in the attempt to return her mind to normalcy. She swept up dirt that was not there, and wiped off dust that only her eyes could see. She then rearranged the cottage’s table and chair; once, twice, three times. She polished the stones on the hearth and washed the pan that Blake had given her, cleaning it with the water they used for drinking.
Afterwards, Joanna sat down on the bed and wept. Loving memories came to her, embraced her and choked her. She remembered when Blake laid in the grass beneath the old oak tree; how he stared up at her with his daring green eyes.
“Lil’ rabbit, ye’ are all a’tremble…” he had said, his red hair flaring in the shade.
She loved nothing more than staring into his green eyes— when they were kindly, of course, or at worst, teasing— and playing in his hair. She would still love playing in his hair were he to let her. Why, she brooded, could he not simply lay still and be pretty? He would be a better man were he chiseled from marble and given emeralds for eyes, like a silent and staring statue in an orchard of appledews.
“Come and lay a while, love,” he had said, holding his long arms out to her.
Laying back, now, she stretched out upon the hard bed, letting her hands dangle in surrender down the sides. Moments bled and fled and a fly landed upon her forehead. Raising a hand to swat it away, her wrist struck something tucked between the corner of the bed and the corner of the cottage. It rang like a bell.
The fly departed and Joanna sat up to satisfy her curiosity. She found the swathed bundle that Blake had hidden there. She picked it up and unwound its blackened leather. Within the apron she discovered a bottle with a strange liquid inside. At first she mistook it for moonwater, and cursed her husband’s vices. But then she realized how much stronger was its glow than the pallor of moonwater, and so she thought it sunwater, which scared her ever the more. As the old Norland adage said, “Moonwater to sleep tight, sunwater to fight all night.”
Determined to confront Blake about it, Joanna took the bottle and set it on her spice rack on the wall. As she stepped away she was startled by a sudden brilliance within the bottle, like a fairy torch being lit above swamp waters.
And within that glow, with form and expression by shadow and bubble and light, was a fanged face grinning back at her.
Black Blake was taken in comfort, and in awe, to Lord Gildread’s castle in the boulder-dotted flatlands of Fidecia. Here, grass shoots were wispy and clumped in patches like the shedding hair of a mangy cat. Yet, the grass here was not withered and ever-brown or dead as it was near the Grumbles. Trees, too, stood here and there, starkly apart from one another and growing to healthy heights, their foliage full and fruitful.
Nearby, the stone-toothed river, Fangflow, glittered in the afternoon sun. Fangflow was like the drowned skeleton of the dragon Gildread with his hot blood all about him, for the waters would ofttimes steam and boil as if flames were ready to awaken from its long, rock-ridged gullet. Unlike the Ashen River, Fangflow ran clear and crystalline, the hot bubbles roiling up like clean glass beads before bursting upon the steam-breathing surface. The glittering water reminded Blake of how parched he was, and how hungry. He opened the coach’s door and leaned out, addressing the coachman as the coach swayed.
“Me good man!” he called. “Will Lord Gildread be feedin’ me this day?”
The coachman did not turn around, but kept his eyes ahead of the coach. “Lord Gildread will be feeding you and a legion of guests tonight.”
“That a fact?” Blake said, surprised. “And who be the gent’men that he’s feedin’?”
“Various lords of Gran Stone, the Southerlands, and other kingdoms.”
Goggle-eyed and gobsmacked, Blake simply said, “Oh,” and withdrew into the luxuriant confines of the coach. He closed the door and stared out the window at the passing scenery. For a moment he found that he had lost his severe appetite.
Joanna eyed the bottle with great horror. The face had gone, and with it Joanna’s wits.
“Tinder, then cinder, and none will hinder,” she said, blinking to the Matharist Prayer Refrain. Unable to endure the face in the liquid, she threw a cloth of linen atop it and then fled from the cottage. Her wits gone from her, she did not come to herself until she arrived at the Matharist Temple and was banging desperately upon the door.
The door slid open and the priest answered her gruffly.
“I am currently preoccupied, Mrs. Blackholme,” he said.
“My husband!” she exclaimed. “His demon in the bottle!”
The priest shook his head. He was not wearing his coronet, nor his priestly hood, and his bald head was wrinkled like a buzzard’s. “Oh, I’ve no doubt that Blake’s demon is the bottle. Everyone in town knows he is overly fond of beer and moonwater.”
“No, it is something worse!”
“My dear child,” the old man said, wearying. “I know not what your problem is. From what I have been hearing from the other men in the village, Blake has reformed. He is on a better path. One of hard work and grace. Mathara has answered your prayers.”
He tried to close the door, but Joanna defied him with a hand.
“Mrs. Blackholme!” he shouted. He took a deep breath, then, and tried to speak more levelly. “You will be happy to know, Mrs. Blackholme, that our good and gracious Lord Gildread has taken note of your husband and wishes to commend him.”
“Yes, his coachman came to our home, but the bottle…”
“His uncanny blessings,” the priest said, raising his voice over Joanna’s, “are not to be squandered, for that would be a greater sin than sheer idleness or a fondness of drink.”
“And if he drinks more than most, what of it? Do not be a nagging nanny goat, dear. It smacks of ingratitude.”
“I am currently engaged in a serious matter of another,” the priest continued, tersely. “Come back at another time and we will beseech Mathara to help Blake with his drinking problems.”
“But, Father, I…”
Joanna saw the woman standing next to the Heart-Fire, her voluptuous body more clothed in shadow than in clothes. Atop her forehead glistened the Matharist coronet. The freckles on her body were like flecks of fool’s gold in a stone.
“Thank you for time, Father,” she said, instinctively drawing back from the door. The priest closed the door shut. Joanna could hear him fumbling with chains and a lock and then heard him call out to the woman inside, with much more elation than she had ever heard in his voice during his sermon.
Finding no aid in dogma or its ambassadors, Joanna headed in the other direction, toward the home of that wily widow, Brigid Emberson.
Gildread Castle was relatively young, formed of newly hewn stone quarried from the defanged headspring of the Fangflow. A moat ringed it, and a small army kept it. Mercenary soldiers stood apace of each other by three spaces at every other stone of the castle. Each militant brow was helmeted with a row of golden scales to legitimize their grim function, and each was armed with sharp lances and solid shields to pursue that function. A single banner flew above the castle, and upon that banner was the castle’s crest: a Gildread coin.
The castle itself had been designed by a man whom some alleged was a wizard. It was a small castle, and yet yielded impossible space within its unimpressive exterior. Those who had visited it knew of its uncanny expansiveness, though few had ever seen its innermost sanctum. Therein, it was rumored, half a dragon’s worth of golden scales resided under lock and key…and trap and spear and spell and covetous eye.
Thus, despite being young, Gildread Castle was as grand a castle as those ten times its years in age.
The drawbridge was lowered—with an ogre’s groan, growl, and roar—and the coach rattled athwart the moat and into the castle. Within, Black Blake was disgorged from the coach and led by a servant to the inner fortress. He was then seated on an ornately scrolled bench in a wainscoted vestibule. He was told to wait.
As he waited Blake admired all of the refinery surrounding him: the golden trim decorating the mold casting of each adjoining wall, and the smooth wooden floors warmed with intricate rugs from the Southerlands; the golden candelabrum flickering their fiery halos upon every mahogany stand and table and drape, the tapestries on the wall, each depicting the rise of the Gildread lineage from nameless by-blow to the richest lords in the land. Blake also admired the buxom maids dusting and sweeping and tidying these luxurious furnishings. It seemed, in his estimation, that the mysterious Lord Gildread was a man of his own tastes, only with better means.
“I am home,” he said, overawed. His eyes could not rest, but flitted hither and thither between the curves of gold and the curves of the busy maids. His pupils, madly alight, were as black flies in a hot field newly trodden by cows. They could not rest on any one corner of decadence without immediately sweeping wayward to another, and then another.
Before Blake’s eyes could burst from his head, a manservant in rich attire befitting a lower lord fetched Blake and brought him from the vestibule to the main hall. From there they entered an open-roofed courtyard in the center of the castle, replete with a dragon fountain scaled in Gildread gold, and then reentered the castle again on the opposite side. By the time they came to the dining hall Blake’s jaw hung so loose and limp that he might as well have recently drank himself stupid and been kicked by a mule. The most neglected corner of the castle contained more wealth in its cobwebbed crannies than the whole village of Kilne.
Gildread gold was everywhere glinting and stinking. When a strong wind wound its way through that many-windowed edifice there rose with it the reek of rot from the dank, dark depths. Yet, strong though the odor be, Blake was more envious, for the stench meant wealth, and that was why, as they say, the wealthy always held their noses so high in the air: so as to not become overpowered by the odors of their pockets and purses.
Everywhere there were soldiers, thick as rats in a monk’s cheese cellar. Some were humans, and some were trolls. There may have been one or two that were something more exotic. Resurrected thralls, perhaps. Gremlins. Dwarves. An occasional ogre. Blake looked upon all of these dangerous creatures with his muscles stiffer and his spine straighter than usual.
And then came Lord Gildread himself.
Gildread was as self-possessed and proud as a cat with a mouse writhing in its mouth. He did not speak. His servants announced him as he stood across from Blake, statuesque in his own tall reputation, and toppled by his own short stature. Yet, his eyes challenged any and everyone as he stood in his orange vest laced in gold; purple pantaloons trimmed in gold.
A manservant held up the newest of Blake’s creations for his master to inspect and appraise. Lord Gildread took the goblet into his small hands and turned it over several times, passing his jaded eyes over the lips of the goblet, the sides, the naked woman swooning against the stem.
“It is a fine piece,” he remarked, returning it to his manservant and gesturing him to have it taken away. “Especially for having been made with the crudest of metals.”
Blake’s pride swelled, and with it his bravado. “If ye’ are in need of something made right, I’m your man!”
Lord Gildread regarded Blake with a slow, impassive eye. At length, he uttered “Indeed” and gestured to the long table that stretched the full length of the dining hall.
Before Blake could say anything else, he was ushered by a manservant to the table and seated. He might have complained of being seated so far afield of the head of the table, where Lord Gildread sat, but he might have also complained of a throbbing mouth ache if one of the soldiers cut out his tongue for speaking out of turn. So he sat quietly, awaiting whatever would be. Soon enough, his intrigue was piqued, satisfied, piqued again, and so on and so forth by competing degrees as the dining hall became peopled and that chatter rose to a waterfall’s rumble.
Silver plates came in on graceful girly fingertips, nor did the food conveyed thereon disappoint: venison steaks, pheasant breasts, simmery stews, and fresh fruit split like Blake’s aching heart. To live like Lord Gildread would be to preside over paradise itself. Surveying the splendor, Blake chastised himself for his prior standards in regard to paradise and their naive limits. He shunned those specters of fancy and joy previously private in his daydream-dizzy yesterdays. Now he could truly dream, the template adequately presented all around him in tangible plentitude.
If the make of the dream was spectacular, the man that made that dream was disappointing and misplaced among its lavish trappings.
Lord Gildread was a man of small stature, with a balding head and delicate hands. To think that such a small man came from the legendary lord that had slain the most fearsome beast of any earthly age filled Blake’s mind with resentful wonder. Mutinous thoughts screamed their outrage at Fortune’s favoritism. But he dared not speak them. So talk was sparse for Blake, as sparse as the food was plentiful, and Blake awaited Gildread’s words like a dog unknowing whether his master would reply in kind or in kicks.
Through the course of the meal, Blake was witness to his own speculation. Lord Gildread’s friends sat in helm of the table’s conversation, eating and talking and laughing and regarding Blake as some two-horned unicorn.
“Maybe he’s like one of those fire-weavers in the Southerlands,” said Lord Rimnel, a man who owned many of the Norlands mines. “The fire wizards.”
“The term is ‘pyromancer’,” said Lord Gildread, “and, no, I do not believe he is one of those charlatans. I have never witnessed a pyromancer doing such miraculous things with their flames. They just force flames to power their turnwheel vessels and, sometimes, make flowery explosions in the air for the entertainment of the Merchant Lords and their many ladies. This man is possessed of a genius.”
Lord Gildread paused and stared down at the plate that Blake had made, whereon a loaf of bread sat like a slug in buttery slime.
“I want to test the man’s capacities,” he said. He raised a hand and a servant arrived forthwith at his chair. “Make sure the coach is packed with silver blocks for his return trip. Should he prove himself possessed of a consistent genius in that medium, I shall graduate him to gold.”
Blake was pleased, and also terrified. “What do want me to make, milord?”
Lord Gildread ran his fingers over the finely wrought breasts of the ironwork woman.
“Whatever his inclination directs him to,” he said. “I believe he and I are men of similar tastes, so he is sure to please me regardless, so long as it is wrought this well.”
Lord Gildread spoke of Blake, but not to Blake, regarding his presence as a farmer does a cow grazing near to feet, unable to understand with its bovine intelligence. Nonetheless, Blake received the attention as esteem, however dubious, and kept the serving girls busy fetching wine for his bottomless glass.
The men continued to talk, of Valoria and its conquests, of Gran Stone and its princess being captured and taken away by a mysterious Black Knight.
“He had cried, ‘No more whimsy!’” remarked a Gran Stone nobleman. “And then hoisted her up onto his saddle and galloped away so quickly that none of the knights in the tourney could impede him!”
Much of the conversations were beyond Blake’s knowledge or understanding, and so washed over him like a foreign language.
The chatter ceased abruptly when Lord Gildread stood up with his arms held behind his back. His friends, his fellow lords, and his sycophants all watched him expectantly as children would a father in an illegible temper.
“Gold is merely one of many means to an end,” he announced. “Force is another. Religion is the third, and deception and promise are the twinned last. They overlap, of course, as do any trades worth their practice, and all four combined within the cauldron of a capable mind can harness spells to subjugate the very cosmos to the most petty whim and wile. What power have those presumptuous wizards of the world compared to me, a primary arbiter? The peasantry serve me. Wizards serve me. Knights, for all of their vows and pretensions, serve me also. Even kings serve me, however begrudgingly. A dragon of gold flew defiant of Man, once upon a time, casting his shadow over our superior race with wide wings: where were these knights and kings and wizards but cowering in that shadow? My grandfather saw that beast for what he was: a braggart to be brought low. Well, gentleman, the universe is a braggart, too, and I shall bring it low, in time.”
There were many polite applause and cheers and Blake, simple though he was in the practice of power, was of a possession of mind sufficient to know that he would very much prefer to be part of Gildread’s lofty dreams than be left in the shadow when such dreams took flight.
“And why shouldn’t I?” Lord Gildread continued. “It is feasible. Moreover, it is fate.” He raised an upturned hand in Blake’s direction. “Look here, upon this man. He is miraculous, isn’t he? Yet no more miraculous than the common miracle that frequents the world. Even a goat may be touched by genius and chew a hedgerow in likeness of the gods.”
Polite laughter rose like a flock of soft-winged birds from the throats of Gildread’s guests. So gentle was the laughter that even ill-tempered Blake did not feel offended by it. Rather, he felt jollier than before.
“And so, with so meager a mold and make, he has managed to become a lord of his trade as well. Could it not be that, in proportion, I, being his superior, should aspire toward that lofty goal and exult in its fruitioin?”
Lord Gildread suddenly glared at Blake, as if he took umbrage at Blake’s wine-induced smile of idiocy.
“Let me inform this blacksmith of something essential in this world. It matters little whether you are of a mediocre mind or middling talents or nameless, claimless, or shameless so long as you have but one skill. And that skill is in being able to manipulate the masses against their own good. Men with that particular knack need nothing else.”
“Like…like a shepherd culling a flock of sheep,” Blake said meekly in a moment of insight. “They do as he says, even as he steals their lambs.”
“Very much so,” concurred Lord Gildread, suddenly smiling. That smile frightened Blake more than the glare. “I am a shepherd of the stubborn imbeciles, and so I am a sheerer and a butcher and a salesman. But all of those roles depend on their following me willingly into slavery.”
“And if they try to escape your pastures?”
“Then that is what the wolves are for,” Lord Gildread laughed, gesturing to the mercenary soldiers lining the walls of the dining hall. “And they, of course, follow me as obediently as the sheep. So long as I throw a pound of mutton to them when their hungers bite at them. Every appetite I can provide for, if the chain is minded.”
“Why come to me, child?” the widow asked. “The priest is always willing to…counsel young women.”
“I saw a face in the bottle,” Joanna said. “A face of flame amid the sunwater. It appeared to me with a horrible grin that struck me to my soul with its wickedness.”
Brigid Emberson tilted her head to the side. It was almost as if she was trying to look at Joanna with her bad eye as it wandered this way and that, finally nestling up in the inner corner, near her nose. “A face of flame in a bottle?”
“I don’t know if it is a devil or a spirit or some forgotten god. I know only that it means to do great evils upon my husband. I went to the priest, but he would not listen to me.”
“Entertaining Olga again, is he?”
Joanna gawked. “I…I do not know who she was. Her habit of dress was not appropriate to devotions.”
The old widow cackled. “Oh, I am sure the priest was well-pleased by her dress and her ‘devotions’.”
Brigid Emberson looked away from Joanna and stared into the pot that hung in her hearth above the crackling fire. There were frog legs sticking out of its broth, and bird heads, and countless other things that Joanna would not have liked to see.
“Child, humor a batty woman and tell me what is it those rogues-in-robes have told you about the creation of the world. It’s history. It’s stories.”
Joanna frowned, trying to recall what the priest had said at Mass. “Mathara, the mother-goddess, flew through the All Ways and found it lonely and barren. Craving company, she birthed an egg and incubated it in her flaming Word. When it hatched, the world was born.”
The widow nodded, took a spoon and ladled a mouthful of hot broth between her lips. She smacked her lips, noisily, and then grabbed a jar of herbs sitting on the hearth’s ledge. Pinching the chopped grasses between finger and thumb, she sprinkled into the soup and then stirred the soup some more.
“Yes, that’s the gist of the thing. But it’s important to note other things of importance, too. With the flaming Word came light, and so sprites. All that Mathara did in the beginning created life, including her breath of destruction. Demons, genie, and imps were created from the fiery Word of Mathara, and so they were the manifestations of wild destruction.
“After the egg cooled, its burnt shell turned to stone, wherefrom trolls and ogres were born. This stone cracked and the whites of that cosmic egg became soft soil, so that trees grew from it, creating dryads and goblins and other things of the fertile earth. The fiery yolk of the egg contained Mathara’s truest children, dragons, many of which still sleep there, in the molten yolk of the earth.
“And then Man came, in time, though no one knows from what. Matharists like to believe Mathara fashioned us separately, specially, and so made us as her favorite children. I do not know. What I do know is that the egg cooled, and when it cooled the imps and demons sought salvation wherever they could.. Sometimes those fiery creatures breathed their flames into a man, and that man became Inspired, and did great deeds. More often was it, though, that such creatures were directly sought and harnessed. Such as how the lords of the Southerland Seas harness imps for the betterment of their cities.”
“Turnwheels,” Joanna said.
“Yes, my bunny. The turnwheel fleet of the Southerland lords. A fleet of ships independent of sails, cutting the waters with their wheel-rudders faster than any wind-blown sailboat. The pyromancers imprisoned imps in the iron bellies of those ships and fed the impfire through the ships. Yet, while they use such destructive creatures for trade and defense, they rightly fear their imps. Tell me, child, have you ever heard the story of the great Imp Pyre?”
In an impetuous moment of chummy daring, brought about by Blake’s copious guzzling of wine, he went up to Lord Gildread after dinner and shook his hands. As shocked as Lord Gildread was, and the rest of his guests, Blake was even more shocked. Lord Gildread’s hands were small and soft, like the hands of nobleborn girls. They were also quick and furtive as they withdrew from Blake’s.
It was a mistake to shake Gildread’s hands. Blake was quickly ushered out of the dining hall and taken to the coach. He was then driven home as the sun descended. Seeing the dusk’s flames on the Fangflow, he was reminded of that liquid fire that awaited him at home in his bottle. He was drunk already, but the thought of that amber sunwater spilling down his throat made him thirsty anew. Such a single-minded obsession had he with the thought of that fiery liquid that he forgot about his presumptuousness with Lord Gildread, and paid no mind to the bars of silver stacked in the seat across from him in the coach. The taproot of his attention dwelled singularly on the bottle awaiting him at home. Nothing else mattered.
“It happened countless centuries ago,” Brigid Emberson said. “The world as we know it was young, for Mathara’s breath had cooled upon the egg and Mathara herself had cocooned herself in flame, becoming our sun. The earth had grown new things. Plants. Animals. New primordial entities propagated upon the earth, prospering as winds blew, rains fell, and the oceans settled in their vast expanses.
“But the primordial creatures grew restless and hungered for mischief. There came a great wildfire invasion caused by imps who loved nothing so much as chaos and destruction. This was called the Imp Pyre.”
As Joanna listened she gazed into the flames of the widow’s hearth. She thought she saw figures dancing in that crackling glow.
“Eventually the Imp Pyre was quelled and conquered by Sylphs and Undines and the other air and water elementals. Defeated, the imps were forced into the mountains; into magma floes and into the dark recesses underground. They dared not go too deep, for fear of being eaten by the dragons still nestled within the fiery yolk of the earth. For dragons love to eat nothing so much as imps. Except, perhaps, virgin maidens.”
She stirred her soup some more, and slurped at it with her ladle. Her wandering eye stared at the contents of the soup while her good eye returned to Joanna.
“Later, after the rise of Man, Pyromancers sought the imps’ power for their spells and their machines. Imps are elementals, like all primordial spirits. Their power is limitless within certain circumstances and can be channeled if a wizard is willing to risk the perils of invoking the unpredictable creatures. It is said that imps were somehow used by the original Lord Gildread to destroy the golden dragon that dwelled in these mountains. It is also said that imps might still be found in the Grumbles, just as the skeletons and the weapons of Gildread’s army might still be found here. Of course, you will never find a golden scale belonging to that dragon, for Lord Gildread was quite adamant that a thorough search and accounting be made for that inventory.”
The old widow laughed, and it was like a murder of crows were taking flight.
Joanna realized she had not been breathing. With a sigh, she began again, her heart beating like a dwarf’s warhammer in her chest. “So you believe the face I saw in the bottle to be an imp?”
“It is possible,” the widow said. “The eldest among us remember that Lord Gildread baulked at no method to slay the golden dragon. And he had many pyromancers among his enlisted men. I would not be surprised if his great victory that claimed him so many blessings was achieved by cursed means.”
“Can I destroy it?” Joanna asked. “Pour it out? Throw it in the hearth-fire?”
“That is exactly what it wants, my bunny,” the widow warned. “To be freed. Were you to pour it out, it would catch fire and burn as it did of old. Grow. Breed. Consume the world again. All you may hope to do is keep it sealed. Or else find a pyromancer to bind it to him. Only they can control them.”
“But what could Blake be doing with it? Has he made a pact with it? Is that how he has bettered his blacksmithing?”
“I think you already know that answer, my bunny. But I should warn you A fire may warm you in winter,”— she gestured to the hearth— “and a fire can devour you to your bones. There is scarce compromise in a fire. It does as it wills. Imps are the same. All elementals are the same.”
“I do not know how to summon Undines,” Joanna said, sadly. “And I doubt any in the Ashen River would be on kindly terms with me or anyone else in our village. And I know of no pyromancer or hydromancer, and even if I did I would have nothing to induce such a man to help me. Shadows are in every direction, and the only light I can see is the flame of the imp to whom I am married…”
When Blake returned home, he stumbled out of the coach and staggered into the cottage like a man beaten senseless. The coach left and Blake found himself alone in his father-in-law’s home, staring into the dim emptiness of the interior like a man trying to remember his name. He walked to the dark hearth and kneeled down. He tried to start a fire with some flint.
“From luxury to squalor in the turn of an evenin’,” he growled. “Ain’ no doin’ with it.”
A flame caught among the kindling and he grinned at the flickering tongues. As he stood again, there came accompanying the blood rush to Blake’s head a thousand blinking images which so wholly overwhelmed his drunken mind that he swayed as if swirling in a whirlpool. That whirlpool promptly pulled him down to the floor with its undertow.
When Joanna arrived home she found her husband limp on the floor and mumbling as if in a dream. She hurried to him, bending over and helping him to a chair. Something stank like death in the cottage and it alarmed her.
“Blake, what is the matter?”
“I’m all overjoyed,” he said, his red head lolling. “Lord Gildread ‘as shown me favor, which was always me due. Here, a gift from ‘is lordship.”
He pressed something hot and smelly into Joanna’s hand. Opening her hand she found a ring made from small Gildread dragon scales. Shocked, she dropped it to the floor as if it was a spider ready to bite.
“Have ah care, woman,” he snapped. “Don’ abuse things given to ye’ so freely.”
“I do not want it,” she said. “It stinks of decay and death.”
Upon her refusal, Blake’s face darkened as if in the shadow of the Mumbling Mountain. “If ye’ donna’ take it, I’ll give it to another lassie with a lil’ more grat’tude in ‘er bosom.”
“Give it where it pleases you,” Joanna said, trembling, “but do not let it remain here. All Gildread gold is cursed. T’was since the day it was pulled from the carcass of that evil dragon.”
Blake simply grinned and then tottered upright, staggering to the bed and groping through his apron. Suddenly, he bolted straight up and turned around, his face twisted into a snarl.
“Where is it?!” he demanded.
Joanna flinched from him, throwing her hands up as he rushed at her with a fist raised.
“Where is me bottle?! I’ll not ask ye’ eh‘gin!”
Joanna pointed to the spice rack.
“Why’d she go an’ put it there where any ol’ thief could snatch it?” he slurred, his livid face relaxing into a lurid grin. “I warned ye’ not to be goin’ an’ touchin’ nothin’ that weren’t yers. An’ it’s not a spice, ya’ silly filly, ye’.”
Chuckling strangely to himself, Blake fumbled with the spice rack, trying to take the bottle down. His coordination was poor due to drink and so the spice rack fell with his clumsy efforts, crashing to the floor. Jars shattered and spices flew free in scattering heaps. The bottle was unharmed.
Blake nearly fell over trying to pick it up. When he swung himself upright again, he laughed triumphantly. Popping the cork out, he tipped his head back, upended the bottle, and drank so large a gulp that when he had finished swallowing there was but less than half of the bottle left. Corking the bottle again, he returned it to its place beneath the bed, swathed in his leather apron.
“Ye’ idiot woman!” he exclaimed. “Mind ye’ to never touch me things!”
Trembling, Joanna could only nod.
“Leave be,” he said, “or there’ll be tears to shed, I promise ye’.”
He then stooped and picked up the gold ring she had refused, then headed to the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
He paused at the door and swung himself around as if to fall, his face twisted with a queer leer. “To find me some gratitude. Bound to be ‘ereabouts somewhere.”
A week came and went like a crow; at times flying quickly here and there in search of carrion, and at times perching and pruning itself stubbornly for long durations, unmindful of the dread it inspired by lingering near a window.
The bottle was more than half emptied of its golden amber now. Blake spent much of his time either at the forge, shaping silver, or flaunting his Gildread coins where all might see and envy him. On the rare occasion that Blake visited home—between the intervals of manic creation and debauchery with any willing woman worthy of a second glance— he did so only so he might drink from the bottle that inspired him; nothing more. He treated Joanna as the guardian of the bottle and expected her to hold vigil over it. Simultaneously, he was suspicious that she might betray him, too. More than once he walloped her pitilessly, sending her sprawling on the floor.
The things that Blake forged were as obscene as they were beautiful. Sober minds they repulsed, even as they inspired awe with the skill needed in their creation. For decadent minds, such as those of Lord Gildread and his aristocratic acquaintances and sycophants, his perversities quickened their hearts and became as the embodiments of the truths that their lives celebrated. Nymphs and satyrs were combined in grotesque union; gods ravished virgin girls only recently blossomed to womanhood; beasts mounted in congress with women in horrible surrender. Certain figures upon an ash urn bore resemblance to several women in the village of Kilne, turning wives red with embarrassment and husbands red with rage.
Yet, Blake was untouchable, so highly held was he in Gildread’s esteem. It would have been less perilous to brave a dragon-guarded tower seeking a princess than to lay one unwanted finger on Gildread’s new curiosity.
Joanna’s was an unhappy situation. She could not destroy the bottle, nor could she hide it from Blake. When she attempted to hide it in the pig’s pin, he did not even ask where it went, but simply walked into that ramshackle perimeter and retrieved it, backhanding Joanna as he took it inside the cottage. He was drawn to the bottle, never needing to see its glow to find its succor. Joanna’s face was always swollen and dark, the bruises always overlapping and never disappearing before she was dealt another bruise to take the place of a fading lump on her face.
A week passed and Joanna went to Mourning-Mass, waiting until the sermon was over to the see the priest one more time. As she waited for him to wish the other Kilneesians a blessed day, her eyes went wandering in the flame-embattled darkness of that windowless temple. They alighted on a statue that Blake had wrought for the priest— a nubile priestess denuded of all except her Matharist coronet. Seeing that terrible statue was worse than seeing Olga standing promiscuously in the shadows. Disheartened, she nonetheless spoke to the priest of her husband’s behavior. She did not speak of the imp in the bottle, for she knew he would think her mad.
“Lord Gildread approves of his work,” the priest said, “so there is no harm in it. Indeed, rather there is great promise in his work. His is a miraculous transformation. If Mathara might only inspire your husband towards religious works then my temple would be the best adorned temple in the whole world.”
“But it is destroying his soul,” Joanna said. “He is killing himself, and he is killing me…”
“Your womanly resentment shames you,” he chastised her while his coronet flashed like a golden grin. “Envy. Pettiness. Jealousy. These vices are clearly written on your face.”
Her face still ached from the recent blows Blake had given her, and so it hurt ever the more as her face trembled with frustrated tears.
“If your husband hits you, then I say it is for the best. If he strikes you, it is his right and it is justified. He has reformed his life. He has become dedicated to Lord Gildread and to Matharist work principles. He is an outstanding example of Kilneesian work ethic and grace. Perhaps you should worry about your shortcomings and misdeeds as a wife. Perhaps you are the reason it has taken so long for your husband to find the Matharist light.”
The scolding stung sorely and Joanna left the temple in tears, weeping at her own powerlessness. Shuffling home with her head down, she knew not what to do. It seemed the world had gone mad, like a wasp-stung centaur, and the horse was now atop the man.
Daryld did not like the look of the caravan traveling up the foothills toward the Mumbling Mountain. There were too many bright colors in its procession; far too many for any Kilneesian who had grown up under dark gray skies, dark gray mountains, and dark gray moods.
Onx said something in the stone-grinder of his throat, and Daryld actually understood him.
“Pretty?” Daryld said. “They’re too garish even fer peacocks.”
“Lots of wealth there, though,” Ganth said. “Them be Southerlanders. Ye’ can smell the beaches on ‘em from here.”
“Damn salt-skins,” Daryld cursed. “What do they want?”
The caravan stopped and several men stepped forward, all scarfed in silk and carrying long spears with crescent blades. There were a few beautiful women staring from the tent on one wagon, their eyes dark and alluring. Even Daryld had to admit, salt-skin or not, there were a thousand undreamt delights in such eyes.
The most colorful man among the troupe stood forward and unwrapped his orange scarf. Beneath it, he was a handsome man with the same dark complexion and eyes of the women in his tent-wagon. He gestured to another man who was holding a decanter which Daryld knew, upon first sight, was of Black Blake’s make.
“The man is possessed of a genius who made this,” remarked the man in silks.
“A genius and a devil, too,” Daryld said. “Who are you and what do you want?”
“My name is not important. Just know that I am a War Merchant from the Southerlands. I have traveled North to see for myself the metallurgist who created this wonder. I should like to purchase his services for a specific object, if Lord Gildread is willing to allow it.”
“Ye’ll have to speak to Lord Gildread ‘imself,” said Daryld as he and his two fellow Overseers stood stonelike at the mouth of the Mumbling Mountain. “But for now Black Blake’s not to be disturbed. Lord Gildread ‘as him workin’ ‘is silver bars, and that’s mindful work, mark you.”
“Indeed,” said the War Merchant, gesturing to another man among his caravan. This man brought the War Merchant a colorful silken pouch. The clinking of its contents told Daryld exactly what it was: silver coins. “Is there not a way I can seek his attentions, though? A means of compensating for time lost and time favored?”
He held the pouch of silver out to Daryld and Ganth and Onx, yet none of them stepped forward to claim it. They knew where their bread and stead came from, and that was Lord Gildread. No need to lose a bit of your height for silver.
“I’d advise ye’ to go see Lord Gildread about breachin’ the matter,” Daryld said. “That’s the only way yer goin’ to get what ye want.”
The War Merchant’s eyes darkened, but he relented. Coiling his scarf about his face again, he mounted his horse and gestured to his caravan of men with their bright orange and blue banners. They descended from the foothills and headed into Kilne.
“Damn sand-toed salt-skins,” Daryld cussed. “Can’t stand the look of ‘em.”
“All those bright colors,” Ganth growled. “Gives me a hea’ache.”
Onx grumbled something sadly; possibly about wanting colorful scarfs to bring home to his troll-wife.
“Ain’t no doin’ with them,” Daryld snapped. “Pretty pastels ain’t to be trusted. Never trust a man who don’ wear leather or wool or fur.”
“Silver was mighty temptin’, though,” Ganth said.
“True,” returned Daryld, “if ye’ can enjoy it without yer head.”
“But ye’ could just take it and run,” Ganth reasoned. “Maybe go live on the beach in the Southerlands for the rest of yer days. No winter down there, leastways. And all the gold you’d want, if ye’ were thinking of golden shores, I mean.”
“Don’t be daft,” the shorter man growled. “Do ye’ know the cost to live there? And I’m not talkin’ about havin’ to be ‘round ‘em salt-skins all the time, neither. Buyin’ a steak down there costs as much as a cow up ‘ere. You’d be robbed out of yer silver before the first day. Mark me.”
Onx again spoke, like he had stones grinding in his blocky mandibles.
“No, I don’ know what ‘em scarfs cost,” Daryld growled. “Get yer wife a wolf pellet. It’ll last longer.”
Again Onx spoke.
“Then get her a fox pellet!” Daryld said, wishing he had not grown to understand Onx over the course of the last week. “They’re pretty enough! Orange enough! Red enough, too, ‘specially if ye’ leave the blood on ‘em to stain.”
Onx sighed sadly again and absently scratched at his backside.
Ganth glanced down the forge-lit tunnel. “Should we go…you know…mind the smiths?”
The habitual scowl on Daryld’s face broke into a troubled grimace. “I think they ought to be gettin’ along just fine. No need to push ‘em too much. Ev’rything’s smooth as unicorn milk down there, I believe.”
“Right,” said Ganth.
Onx rumbled in agreement.
The Overseers stood outside the mouth of the cave and watched the sun go down. They did little else nowadays. Lately, they had been doing less and less patrols through the forges. The truth was that Blake was the only blacksmith about whom Lord Gildread was concerned, and Blake worked like a dwarf in a mine made of nothing but jewels: toiling endlessly with a strange gleam in his eyes. If the other blacksmiths did nothing, it did not matter. All that mattered was that Black Blake transformed Gildread’s stacks of silver bricks into exquisite, unparalleled treasures. Black Blake kept to this task without their admonishments, and so they felt redundant and had little else to do.
Yet, the Overseers were not at ease in their easy employment. They could not watch Black Blake work anymore. Even Onx shuddered at the sight. For as Black Blake smelted and poured and hammered his works, like a man possessed, his shadow loomed large and black on the cave walls all around him like some hellbent beast of mischief and malice. His red mane grew into greater disarray, flaring wildly atop his head. It glowed, too, with an orange luster, and so too did his pale skin. His temperament was volatile and to be in his presence was as to be in the presence of a wildfire, always fearful of which way the winds might blow.
Joanna’s anxiety was as a harpy perched upon her narrow shoulders, talons sinking deeply, beak at her ear, its worrisome voice shrieking wildly. She tried to shake it off, which distressed the raptor ever the more. Nor was it receptive to soothing caresses and feel-good little lies, but only shrieked more loudly as Joanna’s innate naivete provoked it.
So overcome with this harpy was Joanna that she stumbled to the cottage of the old widow, sobbing beneath the harpy’s weight and fell down in front of the old woman.
Brigid Emberson was sitting outside of her cottage, seemingly asleep in her wicker chair. Joanna begged the widow for wisdom in her trying times.
“You needn’t wisdom,” the old woman said, her eyes remaining closed. “Just a little will and wile.”
“The priest will not listen to me,” she whimpered.
“Is that so, my bunny?” the widow said, a wry smile at the corner of her lips.
“He does not care about Blake’s soul. He cares only of what he makes for Lord Gildread.”
Joanna clutched at her own bosom. “Is that all you have to say?”
“The Mathara priest is paid by Lord Gildread. All priests are paid by their lords, and so owe them fealty of purpose. You cannot trust them to say anything honest or useful. They are paid to keep peasants meek and obedient and diligent, with their heads down and their ears closed to those of us who know the truth.” The old woman chuckled quietly to herself. Her long, gnarled fingers were entwined over her belly. Her eyes remained closed. “Don’t you think it strange that the Matharist temples have doors like barns? Doors like those used to keep cows and horses and sheep within? It is their own little joke. The dragons of the new age have a sense of humor, my bunny.”
Joanna, being a simple person, did not wish to hear matters concerning politics, especially those that hinted at heresies.
“None of the other townspeople will talk to me,” she said. “They shun me. If I told them the danger that threatens Blake they would not believe me, or they would laugh and eagerly await it.”
“Seeing the marks of affection your husband has been so generous to give you,” the widow said, her eyes still closed, “I should tell you to eagerly await his comeuppance as well. But I know that foolish look in your eye. Indeed, I know it well. It was a look I had in me own eye for years and years until I caught a glimpse of it in a mirror, and saw how very like a ninny I appeared. You will continue to try to save him, and he will continue to beat you, and abuse you, until either he knocks your eye silly, like me dear old husband did mine, or you harden that look of yours; harden that look and that heart and that will to do that hard thing that needs doing.”
“You don’t know what you can do until you do it.” The old woman opened her eyes now, the one eye lolling aimlessly. “As you get older you’ll find that the biggest surprises are those you give yourself. Take my wandering eye, for instance. My husband knocked it useless in my head and so I killed him. And do you know what happened?”
“What?” Joanna asked through her tears.
“I got the Sight in it. And all because of me husband’s abuse of it and my killing him. That is a rich irony for you, isn’t it?” She shrugged. “Not that I can control its aim, mind you, which is a shame. Still, it’s better than a dead eye. Better than an abusive husband, too. I can see the Future and the Past. I can see what Is and what Isn’t and what Maybe Is, which is a crucial magic that many uppity wizards never grasp.”
Joanna was shocked out of her tears. “So you are a witch!”
The old woman gave her a slow, toothless grin. “My bunny, any woman with any sense is.”
Marlowe was cleaning the dirty mugs as fast as his old, callused hands could go. He knew something conspiratorial was afoot the moment the War Merchant came into his tavern and asked him if he knew Blake and when he might perchance visit for a drink. Marlowe was no fool. He did not doubt that the Overseers had told the swaggering silk-scarfed Southerlander to see Lord Gildread for an audience with Blake— as if Blake was not a prideful goat enough as it was—and so the War Merchant had come to Marlowe to bypass such etiquette for the sake of time. Overstepping his place a bit, Marlowe informed the Merchant that Blake would eventually arrive here to drink the ash out of his throat. The War Merchant needed only wait for him to arrive, which is what he and his silk-scarfed men did. When Blake had arrived, the War Merchant conducted business with him outside so that no one could hear of their transactions. But everyone heard it anyway, for Blake loudly proclaimed his fortune upon his entrance.
Black Blake was in the tavern now, and he was entertaining two Southerlander women who had come with the War Merchant’s caravan. They were gifts, Blake said; a gesture of good will in anticipation of a jewelry chest the War Merchant desired to be made. Marlowe was a simple man, but even his imagination went wild with conjecture as to what Blake would forge for such a request that warranted the lavish rewards that were given: two lovely dark-skinned concubines, two hundred silver pieces, a ruby the size of Blake’s throat bulge— which he playfully dropped into the cleavage of one of the bustiest of the two girls— and the promise of greater riches if Blake traveled South with the caravan and took up residence in the War Merchant’s seashore palace.
Marlowe knew that most of Kilne was unhappy about Blake’s miraculous turn of fortune, but none more so than the buxom barmaid, Olga. She was absolutely miserable. When she had seen Blake explode into the tavern—flanked by his two maple-skinned floozies as he boasted of his newly acquired wealth—Olga had taken one distraught look at the trio and then fled for shame. She had nowhere the beauty or bustline to compete with such exotic temptresses.
On the other hand, Marlowe was quite pleased, even if he had to deliver the beers himself in the absence of his barmaid. Black Blake was in such a divine mood that he bought the whole tavern two rounds of beer, and easily drank an equal round all by himself. Atop that, he ordered three legs of lamb, a large mutton loaf, five spicy sausages, and a grilled pork loin with mushrooms. Marlowe’s wife, Hilda, rushed in the kitchen all night to slaughter and butcher and cook food for Black Blake’s ravenous appetite.
It was strange, Marlowe reflected. Blake had always had a bit of an appetite, especially for such a layabout, but now that he was busy forging masterpieces and brokering deals with men from every corner of the world, the lecherous scoundrel ate as if he were pregnant with a farrow of piglets. Indeed, Marlowe had yet to meet another man with such a troll-like stomach. The only thing Blake hungered more for than food was the taste of the salt-skinned Southerlander women. He groped and fondled and licked and nibbled at their exposed skin like a starving dog toothlessly gumming a bone. Not that Marlowe did not feel his own mouth salivate for the curvaceous flesh exposed by those sheer-cut robes. Any man would have, and some women too.
“Gods above and below,” he said, “thank you that Hilda is slaving away single-minded in the kitchen.”
Walking in the starlit murk, Joanna did what she had never dared to do in the entirety of her life: she went to Marlowe’s Tarvern. Her father had always shunned that place, and Joanna herself had in turn shunned it, and in turn cursed it as she lost her husband to it. Of course, even she had to acknowledge that she had lost her husband long before his nightly visits to that den of devil’s drink. She had lost her husband, truly, before she had ever even met him.
She paused in front of the door, and glanced back at the village quietly drowsing in moonlight. She had expected to hear carousing and laughter and mirth coming from the tavern. Instead, it was morosely quiet. She opened the door and stepped inside. Looking around the poorly lit interior, Joanna instantly felt as misplaced as a lamb in a cave full of disgruntled bears. Never having been in a tavern before, she did not know what was the custom when looking for someone, nor if there was a custom. The faces that turned toward her were familiar and full of either disdain or pity. Everyone in Kilne knew everyone else, and so everyone knew the wife of Black Blake. She braved a few steps into the candle-dotted murk and stubbed her toe on a bench.
“Careful, Blackholme,” someone said.
“Forgive me,” she said, stepping around as gingerly as possible.
“Best be headin’ out,” the man said, curtly. “The show’s done and over with anyway’.”
Despite the warning, Joanna walked to the brightest part of the tavern: the bar. Once there, she stood in front of Marlowe as he cleaned his mugs. She asked him if he had seen her husband.
The big man looked at the young woman, seeing the bruises and knots on her face. He dropped his eyes down again at the mug he was cleaning. His flaring eyebrows had more hair on them than his balding pate.
“He left not too long ago,” he said, his tone glum as a plum in rum. “But I don’t think it best you be chasing after him this night. He is…preoccupied.”
“But it is a matter of his everlasting soul,” she said, her lips trembling and her eyes welling up.
Marlowe became uncomfortable. He had never been good at dealing with the crying of women. Hilda was not a crier. She was a smasher. So, Marlowe mumbled a few words and then fell to silence.
“Was he alone?” she asked.
Once again, Marlowe became uncomfortable. “No,” he said.
Joanna shook her head bitterly. She then dropped down on a stool at the bar, propping her elbows on the counter and resting her face in the palms of her hands.
“Father said I should have been practical,” she said, trying not to cry, “but all I wanted was something pretty for myself. My whole life I just wanted something pretty…”
Marlowe resumed wiping his mugs. He thought she was going to remain quiet, sobbing to herself for a while, but then she surprised him by suddenly sitting straight up with a sober look on her face.
“What makes a man settle down?” she asked. “What makes him contented in life?”
“Now that is something I can answer,” Marlowe said, “but only for myself. You see, I was a traveler in my younger days. Went everywhere, I did. From Gran Stone to the Southerlands, and as far out to the Wildfields as I dared. I was a man in want of road, come what may, and I wore my fair share of road down, let me tell you.”
“Why did you settle here, then?”
“Oh, several reasons,” Marlowe said, rubbing his sweaty pate absently with his mug cloth. “Mostly, though, I think I scattered my wild grasses all over the world and, after a while, it became tiresome to keep up with them. Wore myself ragged with play, so to speak, and then decided I needed to settle somewhere that didn’t have any of my shoots growing, so to speak. So here I am.”
“By shoots you mean…?”
“Sons,” he said, “and a couple of daughters. But mostly boys. I may not look like it now, but once upon a time I was a handsome wayfarer that earned himself lodgings with little more than a smile. Well…perhaps not half so handsome as Blake, but a willing worker with a strong back and a kind word. For a season, at least. And then I would set foot to the road again. I used to say, ‘If the child is talking it is time to be walking.’”
Joanna eye’s boggled and her face reddened with anger. “You are telling me to let Blake do as he pleases until he…until he…tires of it?”
Now outrage was an emotion Marlowe could deal with in a woman. He was used to it. It was an accustomed element. It was the air he breathed and the bedrock of his marriage.
“A man’s got to work out his demons on his own. Sometimes it takes a levee breaking before the river subsides. He’s got to deprive himself with his own indulgence. Surrender to gluttony to kill the appetite once and for all. A man’s wayward heart must be chained the same way. Let the beast run wild and hang himself a bit on his chain, then he gets more and more tamed.”
“But it could kill him,” she said.
“I doubt a bit of wine and women could kill Blake,” Marlowe said. “Sorry,” he added, when he saw Joanna’s heartbroken face.
“I am truly and utterly powerless, then,” she said. She stood up to go, eyes watering again as if to wash the counter with their excess.
“Now wait a moment, Mrs. Blackholme,” Marlowe said. “Let me tell you another secret that I sometimes forget to tell myself.” He set a mug down, and the cloth. He scratched the lobe of one ear, grinning like a beaten dog. “Yes, I wearied myself with my travelings. But that wasn’t the only rut that tripped me and brought me low along the wandering road. The biggest snare was that woman back there cleaning up her kitchen. Let me tell you something, and you best keep this at heart: I sometimes yearn to go a’roving— every other day, if I must be honest— but whenever I do I remind myself that Hilda would be shadowing me every step, and counting the steps so she could reckon them with equal knocks later. I am scared to death of that woman.”
His grin widened with true mirth— not in jest, but for the truth of what he had said.
“In fact, I’d rather face Death than face Hilda in her worst moods. She lets me have it, let me tell you. And the worst part of it is she doesn’t kill me when I’ve done wrong, though I sometimes wish she would! At least the animals she butchers are dead when she’s cutting them apart. Me, she just wacks off here and there with a word and a fist and tells me to quit my whining. And, well, I suppose you could say a beat dog will always love its master, and I love that fearsome little ogress of a woman.”
Blake was enjoying a night of exotic debauchery the likes of which he had never enjoyed, either in his youth or in his dreams. It tempted him with thoughts of going South and never returning. The War Merchant promised him an honored place among the Southerland lords. He also promised him more such earthly temptations that had been offered him this night. It was a dream come true; perhaps a greater dream come true than living in Gildread’s castle with all of his luxuries resplendent around him.
Yet, part of him insisted that the Southerlanders were untrustworthy. They were strange and foreign and they smelled funny. They enslaved imps in their turnwheels ships. They enslaved men and women and children. They would do the same to him, this raspy voice reasoned. They were deceivers. They were slavers. They would own him, body and soul.
No, Blake thought: he never would go South. He told himself he could not go South, even as the two Southerlander women spread their treasures for his goatish leisure. The Grumbles were his home. He would live here always, basking in the hot soot-shadows until the day he would be joined with its molten blood and awaken his brethren beneath the earth to run riot over the lands once more.
His appetite for flesh was redoubled with that wild thought, and Black Blake took each of the two concubines in turn, one until she had her fill, and then the other, and then returning to the first and subsequently the second. They were women trained in carnal pleasures, but even they found Blake’s endless appetite a trial between them. At length, they quivered and shook beneath the silken sheets and fell asleep, fatigued to bodily collapse.
Blake was unsatisfied. His appetite was beyond mortal measure, and thus bottomless. Discontented, he left the tent-wagon and headed home with a hurried step, his hankering now a flame that needed quelling, or perhaps stoking.
Joanna left the tavern and shuffled homeward, her mind a tumult. On the outskirts of Kilne, in the pale moonlight, she saw a caravan on the ridge of a foothill. It was strange to see a caravan this far North, and one so large, and one so near to her cottage. She paused, watching a figure climb out from a tent-wagon and descend the foothills. She recognized the goatish gait from the distance. It was her husband, Black Blake.
Blake had not bothered putting on his clothes. Heat raced through his blood like wildfire. Unashamed, he walked naked in the moonlight, pale body gleaming with sweat and lust and carnal indulgences.
Upon seeing the small figure accosting him, he grinned like a satyr.
“Why, my lil’ rabbit,” he said, “fancy a stroll in the moonlight?”
“Where is your decency, Blake?!” Joanna exclaimed. “Where is your shame?!”
“Ah left ‘em back in that tent,” he laughed, “alongside two of the most beautiful fillies I e’er rode in me life.”
“It is no good,” Joanna warned. “You making your wealth this way. What good is gold gotten from bedeviled hands? Everyone knows what horrible lords and ladies they are in the Southerlands. How they abuse their people…how they enslave them…”
“Mind your realm, woman,” he snapped. “The cookery and the food. You worry about what your hands make and I’ll worry about what my hands make.”
“But what of your soul, Blake? What good is gold compared to your everlasting soul?”
To this question Blake gave a frightening grin that made Joanna back away. “I’ll just buy me a new one, lil rabbit. Everything has a price, and right now I have the means.”
Joanna quivered, but stood defiant as Blake came toward her. She clenched her fists and tried to speak.
“You will not take my husband,” she said. “Let go of him or I will…”
Blake ignored her, stepping past her. He then paused for a moment, turning around. He slapped her rump playfully, then reached up and swatted her nose with a flick of his fingers that left her face smarting. With a laugh, he went to the cottage, leaving Joanna outside with blood trickling down a nostril.
Determined despite the blood, Joanna followed him inside the cottage where she found him drinking from his nearly-empty bottle. In his haste he spilled a few drops on the floor. He corked the bottle and returned it to the mantel of the hearth. He then crouched down, animal-like, and licked the fallen drops from the wood. Joanna watched him in horror, and he watched her horror in glee. There was an orange glow in his eyes, not unlike candle fire. He then stood up, blew a foul-smelling kiss to her, and loped like a ghoul from the cottage, heading up the slope toward the Mumbling Mountain, dressed in nothing but the feverish sweat that dewed his body.
Thence forward, Joanna never cried again.
When Daryld, Ganth, and Onx saw the pale phantom swaggering up the hillside with his purplish manhood jutting ahead of him like a dowsing rod, they laughed.
When they saw the orange flames in Blake’s eyes they fell silent and stepped aside.
After a few moments of disturbed silence, Onx spoke. His voice sounded like the most timorous tremor beneath river slate.
Daryld listened to the shaken troll and nodded. “Yer right at that, Onx,” he said. “Maybe changin’ our post would do us all some good.”
The next day the sun smouldered dimly behind a smothering fleece of clouds, like a molten glob of gold cooling cold. Bitter winds were beginning to blow down from the mountaintops. Winter would come soon. It intensified Joanna’s nervousness and dread. No good ever came of Winter this far North. It was as a mad king without mercy.
Lord Gildread’s coachman arrived at the cottage, seeking Blake. Joanna informed him that her husband had been gone since the night before. When the coachman inquired to his whereabouts, she pleaded ignorance, but supposed he was at the forges. The coachman left for the forges and Joanna cleaned the cottage, trying to exorcize her demons of anxiety. She was absentmindedly sweeping the floor when her broom brushed against something and sent it sliding and clattering against the wall. Joanna bent down and picked the curious object up. It was the ring that Blake had tried to give to her the first day he arrived home with the bottle.
Running a finger along the crude iron ring, she felt a certain chill emanating from its small circle. When she tried to put it on her finger she discovered that its hole was obstructed by a layer of frigid glass so thin it was invisible. She recalled that Blake had tried to give the ring to her the day of his transformation.
“Is this the key to it all?” she wondered.
There was only one person she knew of that could tell her. Her heart pounding with hope, Joanna took the ring forthwith to the widow witch, Brigid Emberson.
Blake’s most recent accomplishment was now being conveyed to Lord Gildread by his coach, held within Blake’s own sweaty hands. Lord Gildread had learned of the War Merchant’s presence in Kilne and had deduced the reason behind it. He wanted to see Blake straightaway, to secure Blake in his singular employment lest he be stolen away from him, and to offer Blake the hospitality of his castle.
Of course, Blake had to be bathed, first, and dressed properly. The gold-cowled coachman saw to these things, for he was a devoted fellow and did not flinch in fear of Blake’s orange gaze. Blake agreed to wear clothes, but only the minimal of attire: a breezy white tunic and black britches. By the time he had arrived at Castle Gildread, Blake’s tunic was soaked through with profuse sweat. The glow in his eyes was almost as red as the hair on his head.
When Lord Gildread beheld Blake he actually smiled. He did not seem surprised by Blake’s demonic countenance. Rather, it pleased him and he displayed his pleasure by ushering Blake in with his personal attentions. This was a welcome change and Blake felt a comradery with his Lord more than he had before. He felt safe with the man and the legend; he felt like this man could protect him from dragons if need be. Why Blake suddenly feared dragons, he did not know. He was simply grateful that he had a dragon of his own, so to speak.
Blake had presented his newest achievement to Lord Gildread proudly. It was a silver circle plate crowded with an array of dancing nubiles, none of whom were yet blossomed in their years, and at the center of their innocent dance was a ruttish satyr with a lecherous grin on his goatish face. It pleased Lord Gildread, who said as much, after which he invited Blake inside to feast and make merry with his rarest wines. As the day gave way to night, Lord Gildread led Blake into a lavish room of silk sheets and fluffy cushions filled with halcyon feathers. There, awaiting Blake, were three ladies Lord Gildread had acquired from a collector in the distant reaches of the Eosterlands. The three girls were pale eyed and green-skinned. They smelled of rainwater and mountain lakes.
“They do not know the ways of Men,” Lord Gildread said.
And, without another word, he stepped out of the room, closing the door behind him as Blake approached the wide-eyed nymphs, his britches slipping down his legs like shed snake-skin while his eyes flamed with volcanic desires.
The widow rolled her head about, letting her wandering eye look at the iron-ringed stopper. After a moment of head-rolling and ring-gazing, she pursed her lips in a hag-faced moue of surprise.
“Oh, my bunny, this is not glass. This is ice. An ice-and-iron conceit to trap an imp!”
“Truly?!” Joanna said.
“Aye. Created by the conjoint efforts of a pyromancer and a hydromancer. Perhaps many such wizards. There are runes on the iron, you see, and this ice was imbued with an everlasting cold. Dear me, were you to drop it in a molten floe it might yet freeze the whole vein and stop the heart of the Mumbling Mountain itself.”
“So they used it to imprison the imp,” Joanna reasoned, “but does that mean I might use it to free Blake?”
“Imprison him or kill him,” the widow said. “But I fear it may be too late to free him. I have seen him, you know. I have seen his eyes, and his soul. The imp is as much a part of him as himself now.”
“I will find a way…”
“This will not end happily if you fight it. Perhaps it would be best to give way to the winds. Move elsewhere. Start a new life without him. Marry again. Have children. Be happy.”
“But he is my husband,” Joanna said.
“Love, the willow bends with the winds. The oak falls.”
Joanna stood, her face hardening. “Then I shall have to aim for my husband as I come down.”
The War Merchant queried his concubines on the man known as Black Blake and what they had gleaned from their nocturnal encounters.
“He is insatiable,” the one said, swooning.
“He is an animal,” the other said, sighing.
“Good,” the War Merchant said, smiling. “Animals may be brought to heel, and so too may a man with desires.”
He left their tent and went to the head of the caravan.
“I believe we will be leaving at dawn,” he told his men. “And we will have company.”
“Yes, my lord,” they said in unison.
The War Merchant gazed upon the village of Kilne, with its Ashen Creek and ugly mountains, and pondered how such a barbarian place could produce a forging genius like Black Blake.
“It is a mystery,” he said. “And a miracle.”
Standing atop the foothill, he suddenly saw a woman walking through the village. Any other barbarian woman would have not have merited his notice, but he knew that look in her eyes by glance, however fleeting. It was the look that earned him his wealth. It was the look of war.
“It is too bad she is not a rich barbarian like Lord Gildread,” he remarked. “Or else I might be able to sell to her an army’s worth of spears and shields right now.”
Entering the cottage, Joanna’s eye caught a flash in the corner, and she looked to the mantel where Blake’s bottle sat. A burning glow radiated from that amber gold liquid. She saw again that grotesque face— like a twisted cherubim— leering back at her with its diabolic smirk.
She cursed it, then she acted. Sheathing her hand in her cooking mitt, she hurried across the room and took the bottle down. It fought her as she carried it, its remainder sloshing about with the force of a tidal wave and knocking her about as a man in his drink might his wife when his temper was fully fueled. It tried to tear itself away from her grasp, and it tried burning her with its flaming glow. But Joanna was a stubborn woman, and more importantly she had been hardened over the years by her marriage to Blake, so while she was meek to any eye catching her, she had a spine of iron that could not break. Just as importantly, she had an iron-bellied stove.
Yanking the little door open, she flung the bottle hard into the fireless pot belly. It shattered and then the stove’s belly flared to life. Before the imp could escape, she threw the ice-and-iron ring inside. She then shut the stove door. There came a horrible scream of vengeful rage followed by the great pounding of what sounded like fists against the iron flanks of the stove. Soon the pounding became desperate clawing, then a wail that was heard by the War Merchant and the smiths of the Grumbles, and even far away to the castle of Lord Gildread. The wail ended in a whimpering moan and a crackling, then a smoke-breathing silence.
Joanna—tired and heat-flashed—sank down into the chair beside the table and stared emptily at the stove, thinking, with disbelief, at what she had just done. And she thought of the stopper on the bottle, with its iron ring. She fetched it out of the stove, a cold mist drifting lazily out of that blackened iron belly. And she looked at the iron pan that sat atop the iron stove and she had an idea as to how to save her perfidious husband.
Blake stood bolt upright, as if struck by lightning. He roared and the three nymphs huddled together in fear, cowering away from him. Blake forgot about them— forgot about Lord Gildread and the castle and the decadent splendor surrounding him. Those who witnessed his flight from the castle claimed he loped like a hunched, hunted beast fleeing in the moonlight. His face was twisted into a snarl of pain and rage and his eyes burned as if forges were flaring within them and devils were tending the fires. He slavered and he growled. The only intelligible words anyone could discern were “Burn ‘er backside, I will!”
An unnatural speed possessed him, like fire on oil, and he arrived in Kilne within an hour, exploding into the cottage to find his small wife waiting for him.
“Father always warned me to be practical in life,” Joanna said as he neared her. “And I was, except in the one thing that mattered most—the choosing of my husband.”
“I’m goin’ to eat yer flesh and yer bones!” Black Blake barked in an inhuman voice. “There’ll be nothin’ left of yer meager banquet but ashes!”
Though Joanna was a willowy slip of a woman there was a stubborn strength in her, too; a strength as enduring as the mountains. It had seen her through her marriage hitherto, despite her husband’s negligence, vagaries, and unkindness. And now the soft clay of her heart gradually loosened and fell away until the iron ore core remained: knotted, bitter, and unmelting. Her willowy slip of a spine straightened and hardened; her whole being hardened, like smelted iron in an icemelt bath.
She swung the heavy pan and struck Blake across the cheek. He reeled and wheeled around like a drunken man caught by a whirlwind. When he presented his snarling face again, and raised a fist, she struck him again. He spun around once more like an incensed dog chasing its tail. He tried to right himself up, raising both fists this time as if to smash her like a troll competing with a rival. She struck him again, and again. Left cheek, right cheek, left cheek, right cheek, Black Blake becoming Black-and-Blue Blake. She struck him in the stomach, and on his knees and elbows. She wacked him hard against his exposed genitals, making him double over, and then she whipped him on his behind like a child with the pan. For every misdeed and betrayal, she struck him. For every defiance of their wedding vows she took recompense.
Joanna may have been willowy of build, but her arms had a strength in them, as did her hands and her wrists, put there from years of cooking with that excessively heavy iron pan. She swung it as a knight would swing a battle ax, and gradually she chopped down the twisted tree that was her husband.
When he was sufficiently dizzied, and kneeling on the ground in near-defeat, she took the ice-and-iron ring and she shoved it into his mouth and down his throat. He tried to hack it up, but she struck him again, across the mouth with the flat of the pan, and sent the magical stopper down into the pit of his belly. He fell forward, hands and knees on the floor, gagged. Nor did she relent even then. She set to once more like a melee champion with a hornet in her helmet, smacking his back with the ugly pan. With each strike a gush of amber spewed from Blake’s mouth, spilling out, ounce by ounce, until the imp was dispossessed of its host and nothing remained of that perverse sunwater spirit but a wet stain upon the cottage floor.
And after she struck him once more, the orange flames extinguished in his gaze, and his green eyes shown true and handsome as they once did, though now crowded with puffy black knots that closed one eye and made the other squint in pain. He found his voice— his voice– and he wailed.
“Are ye daft, woman? Is the red tide upon ye? Why this fury?”
And she struck him again, across the jaw, sprawling him out like a knight knocked off his horse in a joust.
“Leave off, woman!” he cried, holding his arms up for protection, “‘afore ye’ kill meh!”
“Aw, you’ll be all right,” she said, striking him again. She gave him a few wore wacks with the crude frying pan and then let off.
She stood as tall as her short height could be and loomed over him— big and dark and fiery like the Mumbling Mountain with its inescapable shadow— and then she told him what amendment she desired to the compact of their marriage. She told him that he would bend himself to it lest she become a widow that very night.
“Ah promise ye,” he said, coiling in upon himself like a naked infant.
The tone of his answer lacked conviction, and so Joanna brandished the frying pan once again…
Marriage was Joanna’s revenge. She was as loving and devoted a wife as she ever was. Now, however, she exercised a love and devotion that were in equal measure to Blake’s foibles and infidelities. Tit for tat, he got away with nothing. Whenever she flipped his flapjacks with her iron pan, Blake flinched, and cowered, and never dared touch sunwater or moonwater nor beer again, lest he suffer an imprint of Joanna’s love across his humbled backside. She left his face alone, for she did so fancy him a pretty man and
After too many of these corrections, Blake faded a bit. He became docile and meek. His green eyes gleamed no more with their inherent knavishness, but were dim and dull. Perhaps he had taken one too many hits to the head. It had softened his head too much until his brains were like the beans and spuds she cooked for him. Nor did he ever complain of them again.
The people of Kilne all agreed that Blake’s sudden fire of inspiration had burnt him out. His genius, they said, had undone itself through its own unnatural rigors, and when it had undone itself it had undone part of him also. They said he was soft in his head, like a web-fingered idiot born of cradle-sharing parents. He was now quiet where he once was boisterous, timid where he was once boastful, full of lukewarm blood where he once was a surging magma spout of pride and lust.
Yet, though his mad genius had unmade him, he could now forge very serviceable ironware, and so his wife enjoyed a comfortable life, going so far as growing plump in the contentedness of her quiet, orderly cottage; plump enough for her grandmother to have been proud.
And if sometimes there could be heard the ringing thud of hard, flat iron slapping on a softening pumpkin, no one paid it any mind.
Naturally, the War Merchant was furious. He had expected Blake’s acceptance to move to the Southerlands. Moreover, he had expected his ornamental chest to be completed before his caravan returned to the Southerlands. Now Joanna had to explain to him that her husband had ben “spoilt in his head” by too much work. She returned to him the ruby and the silver coins he had paid him. As for the concubines, their services rendered were paid in the rendering of such services, for they said they would have done it for free had they been asked, for it was quite different lovemaking than they were used to. The War Merchant reddened at this slight.
Lord Gildread did not seem at all surprised by the outcome. He invited Blake once more to his castle. His wife accompanied the dullard to the castle, since his conversational skills had diminished, and, after a brief inspection, Lord Gildread bid the couple to be on their way.
But as Joanna was joining Blake in the coach, Lord Gildread summoned her to him.
“A genius one day and an imbecile the next,” he said to her. “I have no doubt the spirit that possessed him must have worn out its welcome. Such a shame.”
Joanna knew not what to say to that, but curtseyed— as her grandmother taught her to do— and thanked Lord Gildread for his patronage of her husband before his spoilage.
“Indeed,” he said.
He held out his hand, and she offered him hers, which he took and kissed very politely. But he did not let go of it. He smiled at her with what may have been humor, but which could have been a dark humor involving axes and chopping blocks.
“But do tell me, Mrs. Blackholme, if you ever happen to find that ice-and-iron stopper. You see, it belongs to me, as does everything that comes from the Grumbles. And, in truth, it belonged to me long before the Grumbles came into my possession. Everything here belongs to me. Everything and everyone. Your husband. You. I own it all, even if you should have pretenses otherwise.” He waited another moment, then kissed her hand once more. “Enjoy your simple life, Joanna, and your simple man.”
Lord Gildread released her hand and gestured for her departure. His eyes never left her, though, nor Blake. His eyes were like flames behind glass, and his mouth was wide, even in his thin-lipped smile. When he smiled his mouth widened even more and Joanna feared he might devour the world. Being in his presence was like being a maiden fettered to a post as the shadow of a dragon descended from above. She was glad to be returning to home, even if she knew she was not escaping his wide-winged shadow. No one in Kilne would.
As for Olga and her fancy for Blake— and, indeed, her fancy for all men with a woman waiting at home— she soon abandoned those errant ways. During her private visits to the Matharist priest she learned that all Matharist priests (and priestesses) are said to be married to that venerable dragon goddess, and to that goddess alone. Olga was immediately smitten by the old man. After all, what rivalry between herself and a mortal wife could compare as esteem like that of a rivalry between herself and a goddess? Naturally, the priest happily obliged Olga’s spiritual expression. Being a man who loved gold above all else, he adored the gold fleck-freckles on Olga’s bosom more than any man in Kilne could have.
And since it happened in the village of Kilne, everyone spoke about it, but none protested it. Some husbands and wives even envied them. They were a perfect match, for Olga loved gold, which the priest, being a priest, hoarded in ample amounts; and the priest loved gold, too, which Olga’s flecked bosom also hoarded in ample amounts.
What an upstart little sapling you seemed to be
with riddles running wild in its riotous roots,
growing on hopes and pride into a tall tree
as you splayed your spread-fingered shoots.
How fast you grew toward the fanciful sky,
holding your ambitions like a glorious crown
stuck in the clouds— ever so deliriously high
that your spindly trunk snapped and fell down.
What a stark collapse that shook the earth!
And you, yourself, too, splintered all apart
so that you looked down at the upturned turf
and saw therein your dry-rotted heart.
You trifled with riddles and poems and wit,
thinking yourself wiser than the way of things,
but then you came aground, bit by broken bit,
and found but kindling in your recording rings.
The Green Man could not save you, oh no, no, no,
nor the rains of plenitude that always came,
and, so imbalanced, you were doomed to go
and now no one knows your secret name.
The loch breathed its mists up the staggered granite spine of the crumbling castle, darkening the gray stones with its clammy serpent breath. From a distance the fog seemed to be as smoke, and in the smouldering blaze of dawn the ruinous castle seemed almost afire, as it had been a century ago when the warlord Dundan Und Gadden laid siege to that ancestral home of Duke Loengel with trebuchets, pyromancers, and their horde of pet wyrms. Now, the half-toppled castle was home to little more than bats and starlings, the occasional grazing sheep wandering in among the fallen stones where the magical fire had enriched the soil to grow abundant grasses, and, of course, the ghosts of that fateful night, echoing onward with silent screams bemoaning their slaughter. No one set foot in among the ruins for fear of the ghosts. A wise shepherd was wary whenever he had to fetch a sheep, too, and oftentimes would let it find its destiny however the destiny was written, lest he, too, disappear from the living world.
Yet, the bard Arnady de Clain, was most welcome wherever he had gone in life to ply his lute strings. Whether ancient kingdom or burgeoning town, he was a musician with a talent for enchanting his way into the graces of many people, and even animals and other such creatures. So he thought—as he traveled by foot along the glens and glades and heaths of the Northerlands—that he would be no less welcome among the dead as among the living.
Arnady was a handsome man, for a man without ample riches, and though not wealthy in gold or silver he had a golden touch for any stringed instrument and a silver voice for any style of song. His gift for song was a double-edged sword at times, however, and while it earned him a stay among many halls, it also earned him the occasional stay in a dungeon, though never for too terribly long a time.
Nor was Arnady naive. Life on the road quickly killed all naivete about the world, if it did not kill the traveler first. He had come to Castle Loengel to compose a new dirge and thought the castle and the loch would be the perfect distillers of mood for the melancholic song he aspired to compose. The castle was dark, brooding, had a keenly sorrowful history and was, most importantly, haunted. If he could channel the spirits—if only as inspiration and not literally as their conduit upon the carnal plane—then he might write something in honor of their woes. As a rule, Arnady never wrote songs to dishonor the dead unless they had been, during their lives, dishonorable; nor was it due to superstition or fear of the “Evil Eye”. Rather, he just felt that it was underserved and morally unseemly. And a bard, he knew, had to assume the moral high ground, otherwise it would taint the Art with hypocrisy. To write a mocking ballad about an evil king who had fallen off the balcony of his tallest tower was fine, if not divine, but to speak derisively of the victims of history was to fail as a bard.
As the sun rose, Arnady sat upon a granite stone the size of a boar. Its back was softened by green moss. He began strumming his lute to various chords and singing patches of words and images that came to the fore of his thoughts as he gazed upon the castle. He always worked a song into being this way, combining word and melody together, augmenting and reconciling them in many turns and variations. As a distinguished bard, he knew that word and melody had to find their natural union, as two lovers must when making love for the first time.
It was this compositional method that made it necessary that each song that Arnady wrote had to be performed in an exact melody of instrument and cadence of voice, matching to a precise rhythm, otherwise the whole song would come apart in its meticulous particulars. His songs were deceptively complex, using as much restraint and space of silence as strumming chords and mellifluous verses. It was the same as weaving a complex tapestry in that the weave and the waft had to be properly aligned, otherwise the intricacies of its images and scheme would dissolve into amateurish shoddiness. A unicorn would look like a goat; a lion like a Pomeranian.
And so he dabbled with word and fiddled with melody for hours, sitting atop his mossy stone with a modest oak tree reaching over him like a mother draping its shadow over her child to tuck him into bed.
“By loch, by lay,
by sun, by day,
the grief doth flow
as a salty brook,
the ancient woe
of each proud rook
one and all burned
without hope or pity…”
He paused a moment to remember the exact wording and melody of the next passage.
“…as stones shattered
and battle raged on,
the men scattered
from a bloody dawn.
There rose a pyre
and many perished—
lost all he cherished…”
It was around noon and Arnady set aside his lute in favor of his wheel of cheese and hardtack. He uncovered the cloth from the wheel and, using a deceptively sharp knife, sliced a wedge to put on his bread. To this meager lunch he added a small sliver of salted ham and washed it down with a flask of mulberry wine. As he ate he occasionally mouthed new verses to his burgeoning ballad. When he saw the man approach him, he cut another piece from his wheel of cheese and, as the man came within arm’s distance, he offered the man the slice. Yet, Arnady kept the knife tightly in hand should the man aspire beyond the proffered piece of cheese.
“Thank you kindly,” the stranger said, taking the piece of cheese. He chewed it with what remained of his teeth and nodded in appreciation. He wore what appeared to be a shepherd’s frock—a simple drape of wool. Otherwise he was bare of skin, bare of foot, and, if not for the remaining curls of gray hair, bare of scalp. “I was not expecting hospitality. I only came over here to see if you were real, or if you were one of those ghosts.”
“Real enough,” the bard said, relaxing his grip on his knife.
“You never know in this place,” the shepherd said. His eyes scanned the ruins sprawling out behind them, lazing in the loch and on the heath. His age was indeterminate, for hard labor and weather had aged him prematurely, and he had a whittled jaw dotted in dark stubble. Half of his teeth were missing. “Spirits conspire here. You would do best to leave soon before they start rising. Sometimes at night you can hear voices and see torches burning in the dark, only to go out with the silence. They may be ghosts. They may be will o’ the wisps. They may be something worse. Whatever they are, they are trouble.”
“I will be cautious,” the bard said.
The man shook his head, his weathered hands on his hips, elbows akimbo. “Lost three sheep to this place. A friend of mine lost a good dog. Things go missing here, and I would hate for someone generous with his cheese to go missing, too.”
“I do not fear ghosts,” the bard said.
“It’s not a matter of fearing them,” the shepherd said, raising his hands, palms up, as if beseeching spirits to lend him aid in convincing a fool. “Grass doesn’t fear sheep, but it still gets eaten. Do not plant yourself where bad things can happen to you.”
Arnady laughed, not unkindly. “That is the shepherd wisdom I always appreciate. Perhaps I shall include your words in a new song.”
“You are a singer?” the shepherd said. His eyes went to the lute. “You play music, too?”
“When I am of a heart to,” the bard said, trying not to smile. He knew that the shepherd knew before approaching him that he could sing and play music. It was not so much a lie or a false premise on the shepherd’s part, but countryside etiquette—the easing of an outsider into introductions, in their own time, and disclosures through a pretense of unassertive ignorance. It was not manipulation, but self-defense, and it was justified. The bard always exercised caution in the same way himself when meeting people of potential harm; only, he did so with greater finesse.
“I know I have taken some of your cheese,” the shepherd said, “but could you be so gracious as to play something for me? My wife would love to hear a song…if you would.”
What he really said, beneath his words, was “If you are really a bard like you say you are.”
“I always enjoy entertaining guests,” Arnady said.
The man nodded. “I have a barrel of chicory beer I’ve been meaning to open for a special occasion,” he continued. “If you came to our humble home we could give you a blanket and let you sleep beneath our roof.”
“That sounds an excellent idea,” Arnady said, not really caring for beer, but always caring about manners. “But I must stay here tonight and…well, channel the spirits of this place. I know it seems a risk, but such are all ventures worth the risk.”
Before the shepherd could argue, the bard took up his lute and strummed the scene to silence with a single stroke. This silence established, he filled it with an old shepherd song, and whatever argument the shepherd was forming in his mind was overcome by the awe of the song he heard and felt.
“Flock of clouds, flock of sheep,
where hills rise and valleys sleep,
there came a man with a cane
cut from oak, weathered by rain,
and where he walked the flocks followed,
his silence vast, his silence hollowed
until the air seemed too loud a thing
in its breeze and butterfly wing…”
“That…that was a fine thing,” the shepherd said, after a long moment of silence. He nodded in agreement with himself. “I must see to my sheep, friend. Thank you for your song. And your cheese.”
He left abruptly, disappearing over the heath and down into a nearby valley. In that valley Arnady had seen the small village as he passed earlier that morning. It was a loose collection of stone huts and timber barns and pens. What the villagers lacked in wealth and luxury they were compensated by simple lives in a small corner of the world, mostly unobserved by greater forces and threats. It reminded Arnady of an axiom of one of those minor houses: “Head down without a crown, or head tall soon to fall.”
It was strange to think that the Loengels ruled here for so long only to be toppled, and then the warlord was himself victim to his own incessant need for war, thus undoing himself with the impulses and schemes that had raised him so high. Duke Loengel and warlord Gadden were both tyrants with two different touches; the former a soft fingertip’s pluck and the latter a hard-strumming swipe. Both were gone now and the small people who survived in their absences thrived…at least until the next conqueror should drag his shadow across their land. Arnady wondered what kind of a man he would have been had he not music to conquer hearts and earn his bread. Perhaps he would have been a tyrant himself, of either touch. Perhaps he would have been a simple shepherd, happy to never know of castles and kings except as crumbling stones and dusty bones.
Arnady was content to add to his song and refine it for as long as there was daylight. But he had to fetch water from the loch, boil it and pour it into his water flask. So he took his tin kettle to the crystalline lake and filled it. As he stooped and scooped he thought he glimpsed someone standing in the water, in his peripheries. When he turned to look at them directly, they were gone. People claimed that a boy’s ghost stood in the loch at the coming of twilight, and if you stared long enough his reflection would reach across the smooth pane of water and touch you as the warlord had touched him—strangling you helplessly in the darkening gloom. But it was not twilight, and more importantly, Arnady did not fear ghosts.
He brought his water tin back to his sitting stone. He gradually boiled the water over a small fire. He had learned of the importance of boiling water from a hydromancy healer in the Eostrelands after he had nearly died after drinking from a dubious brook. The healer nursed him back to health, and for her troubles he gave her a song, and his heart, for a time. They tested his recuperation every night for a month until he left one morning, fearful of returning to that small village lest he stay there forever.
It was at the decline of the Summer’s sun that the shepherd returned, accompanied by a hard-looking, lean woman of roughly the same years as himself— presumably his wife—and a younger woman, smiling as only a country girl can who has spent her life around her family and no one else. She had seen no more than twenty winters, and was handsome in her own way, with plaited brown hair which her mother no doubt prepared while she stirred the pot of stew they currently carried between them, shouldered with a thick stick. The shepherd carried a barrel of what Arnady presumed to be his chicory beer.
“What a fine banquet,” the bard remarked. “And here I thought I would have to settle for stone soup.”
“You can eat your fill in this soup,” the shepherd said, “and have all the beer your belly can carry. We have already eaten, and we would be poor neighbors if we did not share our blessings.”
The two women set the steaming pot in front of Arnady, then gave him a wooden spoon, which he accepted with many thanks.
“It is deserving of a king,” he said. “And many more kings would never deserve such hospitality.”
The two women bowed to him and retreated behind the shepherd. The shepherd set down the small barrel of beer and, using a hammer and chisel, cracked open its top. He produced a ceramic cup and dipped it into the beer, bringing up a dark brown liquid which he handed to Arnady. Arnady took a sip of the beer, finding it very bitter—bitter as the winds that blew down from the ice-capped mountains and across the shivering loch—but pretended an appreciative smile.
Their meal served, the family retired a few yards away, letting the bard eat in peace. The shepherd and his wife did not look at him while he ate, but the young woman’s gaze wandered to him intermittently, lingering with curious abandon. When he had finished the hearty mutton stew, the small family returned promptly to prepare for their return home. Of course, Arnady knew people, being a bard and a traveler, and he knew what they wanted; and he never declined anyone wanting a song or two. This was all merely rural theatrics. Their humility, and their pride, would not allow them to ask expressly for a song—no, never these humble-proud people in their roughspun wool frocks.
“Before you leave,” he said, “please let me share a song with you.”
The shepherd and his wife were slow in reply, but their daughter was quick to plop down in front of the bard, eagerly awaiting the true purpose of their hospitality.
Arnady took up his lute and strummed once across the strings with his fluttering fingers, letting the notes provoke the song he would play for his audience. His hand began to play “Secret Flower”, and his heart concurred with it. It was the right song for that crepuscular sky, that descending sun, and this young woman’s open face as it beamed up at him like a singular flower in an otherwise fallow field.
“My lord and my lady
had a garden, green and shady,
and this they thus forbade me
on threat of death they made me
from that courtyard glade glee.
And that secret flower
wilts within her tower
as dawn nears, hour by hour.
Yet I forget why I
slipped past the guard’s eye
and entered that garden, well nigh
upon midnight, the moon-runed sky
welcoming me with a breezy sigh
to that tower where starlings cry.
And that secret flower
with a taste sweet and sour
wilts in her secluded bower.
Climbing the tower, stone by stone,
I came to a window, from rock hewn,
and thereupon a single candle shone,
lumning a maiden, all alone
until the moment I became known.
And that secret flower
whose petals had no power
wished only for a rainshower.
Loveliest of women, she,
with golden tresses three,
she took my hand and helped me
inside her tower, glad to see
someone other than her family.
And that secret flower
promised me in that hour
to give me her bloom to devour.
She showed me her blessed bloom
and all the wonders of her room,
in being both home and tomb
since she could not leave that gloom
until she married to a groom
which, she vowed, a terrible doom.
And that secret flower
betrayed me, somehow, her
fragrance clinging as I left her tower.
Caught by guards, damned by king,
I was locked away from my dearest darling,
and thrown in the dungeon’s darkest ring
to await my death in the morning,
consoled by the song of a single starling.
And that secret flower
wanes and withers, hour to hour,
in that lonely garden tower.”
There was a long, reverent silence and Arnady saw tears in the eyes of the young woman. Her mother smiled thinly, though her face had dried of tears long ago, made barren by a harsh life. Her father grinned openly, pleased that he had shown his family something wondrous in their otherwise grueling lives.
“Beautiful,” was all the young woman could say.
Arnady was pleased that she was pleased, but he felt sorrow for the look in her eye. It was a look he had seen in many a young woman’s eye whenever he sang, or made love.
“It is the one song that remains to us from the Satoine Empire,” the bard said. “It fell centuries ago, and all that remains intact is that song. Perhaps that is all an empire can aspire to be, in the tides of time; perhaps they should not be even that.”
“You must know a lot,” the young woman said, without a droplet of irony or mockery. Her eyes were so wide that they might pop out from their sockets at any moment.
“I know a few things,” he said. “But just enough to know that I know little. Still, I suppose there are wizards that spend centuries learning only a little. A little is all any of us will ever know.”
“I know how to sew and knit and cook and clean,” she said eagerly, standing in excitement to talk to him about herself; to impress him even a fraction as much as he impressed her. “I know how to deliver lambs that have turned the wrong way, and how to sheer rams so they cannot break free, and what a crow flying against the wind means.”
“Then you know a lot more than I do,” Arnady said, also without irony or mockery in his voice.
The young woman blushed, her callused hand unconsciously playing in her hair. Arnady realized, painfully, that she had likely not spoken to many men beyond her village, and so had little experience in being a woman.
“But I wish I could sing like you,” she said. “I sing a little, but not very well. Would you like to hear a song?”
“Abby, no,” her father said suddenly.
Arnady saw no harm in the girl indulging herself, especially considering the vain, unspoken hopes of her parents.
“I should like to hear you, Abby,” the bard said. “If you would, please.”
The girl looked to her father, doubtfully, then back to the bard. Quietly, she sange a simple Matharist prayer—one among the trite thousand that the bard had heard in his travels, and never condescended to sing—but hers was a sweet voice, even if unpracticed and diffident.
“Divine light, shine bright,
divine light lead the fight,
divine light, burn the night,
divine light, love and might.”
It was a Matharist hymn, meant to indoctrinate with dogma rather than inspire visions and emotions. Yet, as irritable as such songs always made him feel, he could not offend her while she watched him in giddy expectation, eyes eager for approval.
“Very good,” Arnady said generously. “Quite pleasant, and perfect for the heath and hills. Like any songbird singing to the morning. That is the Matharist Hymn of Dawn, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said, grinning so openly at him that he felt sorry for her. “Did you really like it?”
“Of course,” he said.
He laughed softly. “When was a bard known to lie?”
She was so overcome with joy at his praise that she clapped her hands together and held them tight to her heart. She was a very skinny young woman, but her breasts were large. Arnady noticed and looked away, feeling his blood rise and fidgeting uneasily at the shame of it. It had been a month since he had last touched a woman.
“Perhaps I could sing a song with you?” she said. “Do you know the Matharist Hymn of Love?”
His forced smile faltered, though he recovered it when he saw the utterly crestfallen look upon her face.
“I said something wrong, didn’t I?” she said.
“No, no, not at all,” he said. “It is just that I…I do not sing hymns. I would not profane them with my voice.”
“But your voice is divine,” she said. “How could you profane them?”
“It is no consequence,” he said, evasively. “As to your request for a duet, yes, someday, I may sing with you. As of now, however, I feel the weight of your delicious stew and beer on my belly, and it begs me to bed.”
He rose to his feet.
“Wait!” she said suddenly, grasping at his arm. She blushed and released him. “I am sorry. But…you…you must be very important. You must be like a king. Like the Wandering King in the Flaezel Chronicle. Aren’t you?” Her eyes were full of tears, as if the Wandering King had somehow stepped out of her Matharist tome and visited her in her lowborn life.
“I am only a bard, Abby,” Arnady said. “Some think fondly of us, at best, and some could live their whole lives without hearing our songs and feel all the happier for it.”
“I am glad…glad I heard your song,” she said. Her face contorted with a sudden pain of sorrow. “My life is more beautiful for having heard it.”
“Thank you,” he said, cautiously. Once again, that familiar sparkle in her eyes, hinting at a longing as wide and crystalline as the sea. There was a reason sailors sang songs about divided hearts; about being torn between a mistress at home and the mistress of waves. Arnady lamented that he had divided her heart simply by meeting her.
“I wonder, though,” she said. She took a deep breath and looked away from him, to the side, deferentially. “Your song made me feel so much. It was like magic.” She dropped her voice to a confidential whisper. “Are you…are you a wizard?”
He laughed, now, openly and unabashedly. “No, I am no wizard. I am only a bard. We have very little magical power, except, perhaps, in flattery. There are stories, of course, to the contrary. Stories likely embellished into mendacity by bards themselves. The story of the singer, Olfensen, whose song stayed the heart of the Emperor Vandorf so that he spared Olfensen’s favored valley village from conquest. And there is the story of Endor, a bard whose song recounted the tragedy of war so vividly that the tyrant king Bladforth abandoned his march toward empire once and for all. The bard, Andon von Goetzal was said to have sang a song so sad that the Emperor wept for months, indifferent to the world as his empire fell apart all around him.” Arnady grinned wryly. “But those are wishful embellishments at best, and outright lies at worst. No empire has ever fallen to a song.”
She nodded mousily, then looked to her parents. They had already picked up the stew pot and were carrying it homeward, leaving her behind. It was all part of their game. Arnady wondered how aware she was of this game, however. She was such a child in pretenses that she likely had no intentional part in the scheme. She was doing as was expected of her without consciously knowing it, and doing so quite willingly. Her parents wanted a husband for her, before she should grow too old and haggardly to catch one, and here was a man of refinement and skill, however contrasted his life was from their own. And she wanted a husband, too. Sadly, no husband would ever escape being compared to Arnady now, and seeming poorer for it.
“My parents are going,” she observed sadly.
She hesitated in following them, oscillating in indecision to stay or follow. She then blurted out, quite clumsily, what her anguished heart could not restrain.
“Are you married?” she said. Watching her say it was like watching a rabbit flee into the fox: wide-eyed, affrighted, and utterly tragic in its inevitable idiotic course. Arnady sighed heavily.
“The only mistress I know is Song,” Arnady said. “I will know no other bride in my life.”
“But you are not married to a wife?” she persisted, gritting her teeth through the pain of her humiliation.
“No, Abby,” he said, “and I never will be.”
Crestfallen, the girl nodded sadly and turned away. She shuffled home as the twilight unveiled its first stars. If Arnady could, he would have reached up and given her stars to match the twinkling dreams in her eyes, but he could not. She would have to find solace wherever she may.
The darkening of day, and the heavy mutton stew, ushered Arnady into the ruins. He brought his things with him: his kettle, his lute, his satchel of cheese and wine and water flask. The ruins were vast, where the scorched stones did not crowd the passages, and he made his way into the heart of the collapsed castle, coming to the scorched throne room. It was much like other throne rooms he had seen in his travels. It had been largely spared from the pyromancer flames. A large crack ran from the lakeside wall up to the ceiling, splitting the stone to reveal the rising moon. Its pale light washed over the throne room, revealing the dusty tapestries on the wall, behind the overturned throne.
According to the survivors of the raid, Duke Loengel and his family were taken from the throne room and executed at Dundan und Gadden’s leisure. He tormented them all, raping the Duchess and drowning their son, Mannuel, in the loch, holding the boy down with his own arm armored hands. The green-and-blue tapestries remained intact, but moldy and besmirched with smoke and dust. The throne itself—a modest wooden chair with gold inlay distinguishing it from the other chairs in the throne room—was broken. Arnady used it, and some other chairs, to make a fire to fend off the misty chill. Autumn, he realized, would be descending soon here. It was time to head South to the Midlands; perhaps even to the Southerlands. One of his greatest joys was to swim in the Southern Seas while Winter warred against the Northerlands. Nor was it a joy in the suffering of others; only in knowing that a mortal man could sometimes escape suffering, and thrive beyond it.
But these thoughts brought him again to the ebullient joy, and subsequent sorrow, in Abby’s eyes. She would survive the Winter, doubtlessly, yet she would remain alone here; all of the village too close of kin to produce a good husband for her. Arnady thought of her lonely Winter nights— and those cold, dark gulfs of night that might befall her heart in the lonely hours— and felt guilt in his own heart. Yet, he always felt guilt in how he unerringly inspired love only to flee from it. It was his curse, and his blessing. It compelled him forward. He feared the trap of marriage. He feared its stagnation. There were songs to be written, songs to be sung, and ears to entertain; minds to enlighten. Freedom called more sweetly than any maiden’s voice. And his mistress was Song, so what maiden could possibly hope to compete in wooing his heart against Song itself?
But the guilt remained, however much he exorcized it with the cold holy water of reason. Abby deserved more than her life would give her. She was a good girl, he could tell, and much more deserving of a palace of luxury and leisure than the ladies and princesses he had met in his life. Yet, he also knew that her hard life was what made her as she was, and if softened by a life in luxury she, too, would eventually become as those spoiled women. Her face was so open with its smiles and its lack of wiles; too childishly naive and unworldly to be ashamed of her teeth, especially as she beamed in admiration of this otherworldly man singing his beautiful songs. Her hands, conversely, were not so soft or silken as the ladies whom he had met, cloistered in villas and marriage chambers and pleasure palaces for the enjoyment of powerful men, all kept similarly ignorant of the world. No, she had garnered calluses which sailors would have prided themselves upon. Her eyes and heart were sheltered, but her hands had grappled with the world in its fiercest, feistiest moods. Life in luxury would have softened her calluses, but hardened her heart.
While the poor girl still had all of her teeth, some of them were crooked; as if they were embarrassed and trying to hide behind one another. This was no great fault to Arnady. He had made love to women with worse teeth, and the girl was certainly pretty enough. A few more years of hard labor out here, however, would sap her youth dry, if the curdling of pregnancy did not waste it all at once.
Arnady knew about life’s imperfections. While a bard might sing a tale lamenting a perfect love soon gone to rot, he knew enough about life to not succumb to the delusion of believing the saccharine love songs he sometimes sang. He preferred the songs that spoke of life as it was, not as a myth overlaid upon the visage to cover its mottled spots and pockmark scars. And he preferred his women much the same way: prettily imperfect. He had enjoyed a high elf twice, and while the two maidens were flawlessly skinned, there seemed a theatricality to their perfection; a staged presence of living rather than a cohabited union of body and soul. Their every movement was scripted by the obsession with perfection. He supposed bards fell to the same trap in their songs, or the unskilled did, anyway. Loftiness can leave a mortal feeling nothing in a song, except perhaps resentment or ridicule, and so the poetry and images had to be tempered by the realities of the world. If not, maudlin ballads abounded and cultural tastes decayed.
In the flickering light of his fire Arnady played a few songs. The throne room reminded him of the many he had seen and visited in his travels in the Northerlands. Courts were different in the Southerlands— they were more open to the elements since they suffer little for Winter and must only survive the heat of Summers. Their courts were but open colonnades with small pediments and eaves over the king, awnings over the important personages, and nothing for everyone else. The commoners had to abide the sun, and the king, with patience.
“They grip their castles made of sand
so tightly in their tyrant’s hand
that towers crumble, falling down,
destroyed by that knuckled crown
and the need to grasp with fretted fists,
lost their kingdoms to the mists.
But there are those who also find
themselves ruling in due kind
softer and defter than a tyrant king
and yet still losing everything
to the lapping of Time’s endless tides
while Mathara sits and abides…”
He paused a moment to tune his lute. The chords did not sound quite right and he knew his playing was not to blame. He plucked and tuned each string in turn, listening as the notes echoed in that empty, despondent place. When he had tuned each string to his satisfaction, he opened his mouth to sing again, and raised his hand to strum the chords, but then paused, glancing all around him; imbibing the melancholy scenery of that wasted throne room.
Every part of a castle was a dungeon to Arnady. They were meant to protect and conserve, but all they did was imprison and control. Even kings were trapped inside castles, inside their throne rooms, enslaved to tradition, old blood debts from previous generations, and their own idleness and inability to survive on their own, without the peasantry to feed and clothe and sustain them. Arnady was truly free. A bard could be free. He could sustain himself, playing music to earn his food and his way as well as he could. True, he was also reliant upon others to appreciate his music enough to feed and pay him, but if there ever came a day when bards were no longer appreciated with gold or food or a living then he would gladly starve to death in the wilderness, listening to birdsong and wishing a good riddance to the human world.
“The hart of the woodland wide
was a king with an abounding stride
and fought away all foes that may
come to steal a bride.
He fought them all, however strong,
and however many, however long,
and although he never lost a doe
he nonetheless feared a wrong.
And soon he came to fight the trees,
thinking their branches spread to seize
his many does, and so he met his foes
with antlers raking all adversaries.
And then he found himself caught,
antlers stuck in the trees he fought,
and as he struggled his does snuggled
with stags he had hoped to give naught…”
This, too, was a cumbersome song, which was why he needed to practice it. He also needed to take his mind off dishonorable thoughts about Abby and her sun-freckled skin, her broad-bosomed chest, and the innocence of her smile. How many such young women had privileged him with their trust in the past? Too many to count. Yet, he never indulged them fully, preserving their maidenhoods, if still intact, and even foregoing the folly of consummation if they were already “broken in”. In terms of the latter, he feared what might linger after their encounter; and in terms of the former, there was no fun in a virgin, for it was invariably painful for any maiden’s first time, and he did not revel in pain. Rather, he often charmed for himself mothers in various cities; mothers healthy and of otherwise level heads. This was convenience for him, for whereas a young naive virgin might entertain delusions of a future for any such dalliance, a married woman with children had already set anchor, so to speak, and considered him in the same manner that he considered her: a ship passing in the night. And as for their husbands— they made love more to their beer than to the lovely women they took for granted. That was how he justified it to himself, anyway.
The twilight darkened to night, and with it the moon rose wanly above the blackening mountains. The moon was a skull-faced necromancer and summoned up the chill mists from the loch, a fog rising as if an army of ghosts lingering after that terrible conquest long ago. Arnady wondered from whom were the villagers in the valley descended: the serfs of Castle Loengel, or the invading army that destroyed the castle. Perhaps both; perhaps neither. What did it matter anyhow? Scrawlings in the sand just before high tide—that was all history became.
He sipped some wine from his pouch, for it had always helped him sleep easier. He had stuffed the cork back into the flask when he heard footsteps approaching. A torch flickering in that moonlit gloom.
“Be not afraid,” Abby said. “It is only me.”
“I am surprised you are not afraid,” Arnady said. “Your father speaks of this place as being very dangerous. Ghosts and the like.”
She approached his fire intrepidly enough, nimbly navigating the crumbled stones and burnt furniture.
“I do not fear ghosts,” she said, “because I have faith in Mathara.”
Arnady did not nod, or shake his head, or blink, or say anything. He disagreed with her sentiment, but would not discredit the girl’s faith. It might be the only thing that would keep her strong in the coming years of labor and loneliness. It might also be the thing that would kill her in coming years. The bard forswore the hubris of knowing which.
“It is late, Abby,” he said. “Your parents will worry where you are.”
She stood stiffly by the fire, illuminated like a fiery genie from the Southerlands.
“They trust me,” she said. “And they trust you.”
He smiled wryly. “That is a lie,” he said. “They do not know me enough to trust me.”
“They trust you…” she said slowly. “…to do what a man wishes to do.”
Arnady marveled at the boldness of the parents; the daughter, on the other hand, was only doing what she was told. Was she not?
“I will not do as a man wishes,” he said. “Though, it is true that I wish to.” He picked up his lute once again, and plucked at the strings; a trickling cadence of droplets from melting icicles onto a tin roof.
She lingered on the other side of the fire, staring at him.
“Father says…” she said hesitantly. “Father says I will never have a husband.”
Arnady’s heart reached toward the young woman, even as his mouth stayed closed and his eyes dwelled in the flames. The song he plucked echoed in the shadows of the throne room. The moon stared wanly through the breach of the wall and ceiling.
“My village is small,” she said. “And many people do not come here anymore. The grazing is good for sheep, but it is a hard life. He wants me to escape. He wants me to…he says there is nothing for me here.”
“Abby,” he said, “I am a traveling bard. Sometimes all that saves me from starvation is a single fish caught at the end of a hook, or a handful of nuts found by happenstance in a dying woods. It is not consistent. It is dangerous. What I would suggest for you is to travel to another village. Southward, perhaps, or Westward. There you will find your pick of husbands among the locals. You are a very pretty girl, and I am incredibly flattered by your interest. But it is not a good fit. I am not worthy of your hand. You must find someone with a steady heart and rooted feet.”
He looked from the flames to her face. There was a mixture of pain and sorrow written there, in the flickering light, that wounded him. It was often said that a bard felt more than common men. This was true only in certain instances—instances when the futility of life bore upon his sympathies toward his fellow creatures, beautiful and broken as they all were—and thus was one such moment now. Abby was trapped in a hard life, and he was not the knight to sweep her off to palatial future.
“Come here and sit a while,” he said, motioning toward the fire with his head. He continued plucking at the strings. “This is no hearthstone, but I am sure Mathara watches over us from these humble flames.”
“She watches over us from every flame,” Abby said, her face softening. She sat beside him— not too close, not too far away. “From the flames in the stars to the flames in our hearts.”
“Indeed,” was all Arnady could say to that. He suddenly stopped plucking, and let the lute rest in his lap, like a cat gone to sleep. He sighed.
“I want to tell you about the caprices of my life. And the sins.” He looked her in the eye, where the flame reflected in undulating light— or was it her desire that flared there? He pushed such thoughts aside. “My life is never steady, Abby. Thrice was my life nearly forfeited by a single hiccup at the wrong place and wrong time. Once while I was hiding in a tree as a basilisk passed beneath the branch. I had become lost after wandering through a forest of black branches and black eyes. I escaped, by luck, and never again returned to that place.” He shook his head ruefully. “And yet, that was a light brush with death. At the wedding of King Philos’s demented son, to his fourth wife, I had been asked to sing a song of auspicious favor to the couple. A fit of nervous hiccups betook me, after too much wine and too many threats from the groom, but somehow I managed to transform the hiccups into a strange adornment to the song which, being a Northerland court, was well received. It was a bawdy song, of course, but the King had an appreciation of bawdy songs. Unfortunately, for King Philos’s daughter-in-law no improvisation could save her head from her husband’s whims—no more than all three of the other wives who had found themselves in a shorter coffin than they would have expected while living. I thought that I, too, was to spend the night in a shortened coffin.” Arnady grinned confidentially at Abby, but her look of concern did not indulge any dark-humored camaraderie. He shrugged impassively and continued, looking now at the flames directly. “The last time I nearly died from a hiccup was when I was hiding beneath the bed of a married woman, after a night of passion. Her husband came home, unexpectedly, but was so drunk that he passed out onto the floor as he bent over to see what was hiccuping beneath his bed.”
“How did you come to be there?” Abby asked.
He had hoped the obvious would be plain to see, but she was such an innocent that she saw the world as being full of innocents.
“I had been sleeping with the woman,” he said. “As I have slept with many women.”
“To keep warm against the chill of night,” Abby said, her smile perplexed by how such a common practice could be so scandalous.
“No, Abby,” he said. “I was fornicating with them.”
Her face brightened red in the fire, though whether from anger or shame or sheer embarrassment he did not know. Her tongue tripped over itself with denials and delusions.
“But you…you sing beautiful things…you do not…not beastly…not like that…Mathara blessed you…you would not…you have a pure heart!”
“No, Abby,” he said. “You have a pure heart. I am merely living day to day. I live for Song, and I live for whatever it provides me, whether it be coin or rack of lamb or the bed of a married woman. Song is my one and only mistress.”
She rose to her feet quickly and turned, but hesitated, wringing her callused hands in frenzied indecision. She almost looked at him, but her head halted in turning upon her slender neck. All at once, she plopped down beside the fire once more.
“It does not matter to me how many women you have had…” she said. “What matters is what Mathara wills.”
“I do not believe Mathara wills much of anything,” Arnady said. “For better or worse, we all drift without grand purpose through this world. Life is not a song formed in rhyme and reason.”
“But you are a bard,” she said. “You sing songs of rhyme and reason. How can you not believe in how you live your life?”
“That is a good question,” he said, surprised by her intelligence. “But I suppose Man craves rhyme and reason for things. So bards earn their keep in providing such false assurances, as do priests and kings. We create rhyme and reason out of chaos to ease the anxious hearts of the world.”
“With the help of chance and coincidence,” she countered. “You could not rhyme without words working the way they do.”
“True,” he said.
“And so Mathara wills them to work through chance and coincidence,” she said.
“I do not know about that,” he said, stroking the hair on his chin thoughtfully. “There are many times when I wanted to use one word, but the rhyme scheme forced me to use another. Sometimes I have to butcher whole stanzas just to satisfy the sound at the end of two lines. It can be maddening.”
“That just keeps you humble,” she said.
He regarded her for a moment. “You know, I tend to like feisty women who think for themselves. It makes their bedding that much more enjoyable, when they finally surrender to me.”
“I will not give you my maidenhead so easily,” she said, looking very cross as she crossed her arms defiantly.
“Nor would I expect you to,” he said. “I was just speaking to you openly. Opening my maidenhead to you, if you will pardon the comparison. It may sound strange, but while a bard shares part of his soul in a song, he does not share much else of his heart. Perhaps we covet our private selves so much because we have to share so much of our public selves when we perform. What remains to us, hidden away, we guard.”
“I think I prefer your public self,” she said, giving him a scrutinizing look.
He laughed. “Most people would. I can be quite lewd.”
“But you sing of such grand things,” she observed. “How can you be so…so…contradictory?”
He shrugged. “I have seen the loveliest monuments built by the cruellest men. I have seen the most pious people commit the most heinous acts. I have seen the prettiest birds tear apart bugs and lizards and even other birds, and with beaks still smeared in blood they sing the most beautiful songs. I sing songs, too, and have killed a man who tried to wrong me. I have wronged many men by sleeping with their wives. I have seduced with my songs and my charms, and, so far, have not been killed for the wrongs committed. You, Abby, are innocent and pretty and dedicated to your parents. You work hard and you are devout, praying to Mathara every day…”
“Three times a day,” she interjected in earnest.
He chuckled. “I do not doubt you,” he said. “But even you could work horrors upon the world. If your father told you I was evil, or your mother said so, or you thought you heard Mathara, in her flames, telling you to slit my throat, burn me alive, or poison my stew, you would do as you were told, would you not?”
“I…no…you…” she stammered.
“And you might even enjoy it with religious zeal,” Arnady said. “And so the beautiful, pious flower known as Abby would bite with a poisonous thorn, killing the man she wished to pluck her from her soil.”
A war of emotions and thoughts erupted along Abby’s brow. She stared into the flames, then into Arnady’s eyes, then back to the flames, then toward the shadows, out of the castle, eyes searching for the valley where her parents waited and prayed and hoped that she did what they had bidden her to do.
“I do not feel well,” she said.
“You need something to cool your thoughts,” he said. He reached for a flask, found the wine flask, gripped it momentarily, then set it down and grabbed instead the water flask. He handed it to her. She took it, gratefully, and held it to her puckered lips. Arnady looked away as she drank from it, pushing his blood down lest it run riot and claim what guilt and regret would tax him for later. When she had finished drinking, she corked the flask and returned it to him.
“Neither my parents or Mathara would wish me to harm you,” she said. “This I know to be true, so your question makes no sense.”
Arnady pretended not to hear her as he set the water flask in his satchel once again. He did not wish to argue with her anymore. He was tired.
“Why did you come here?” she asked.
“To conceive a song,” he said.
“Why here?” She was leaning toward him; whether out of curiosity for her answer or to come closer, he did not know.
“Songs are only the echoes of empires,” he said. He did not lean away from her. “For Man makes empires for himself, large and small, and bards like myself, sick of empires, become as mockingbirds repeating those vainglorious echoes throughout the ages. Mocking them forever, as ghosts do a previous age.”
She scooted closer to him. He never realized how short her wool frock was. Her thighs were bare in the firelight, and honed by years of walking and working. Small flecks of golden hairs lined them. They were not unattractive.
“And you listen to the echoes for your songs?”
“I hear the echoes, yes,” he said. Her legs touched his own. Through his pantaloons he could feel the warmth of her skin. “The ghosts of empire tell me what they know, and I put it to song.”
“But you sing of more than ghosts and death,” she said. “Don’t you?”
“Sometimes,” he said. “The lands speak to me, too. The harmonies of life. The dissonances, too. Birds in flight. Squirrels in trees. Fish in creeks. The silence, too, hums in between as needful spaces, reminding me to punctuate what I say with breadths for contemplation; gulfs to underscore what I play with breaks, like the hushing pause between the receding and the returning of the waves on the beach.”
“Then let me be the hushing pause between the waves,” she said. “Let me be the needful space. Just for tonight. Please?”
He said nothing, nor did he move away from her as she put her arms around him. They huddled together in the shadow of that ruined edifice, their little flickering flame flecking light like a carrion tongue against the carcass of an empire.