Rust on the Blade Chapter One
By Richard Fife
Meralin swung the hammer rhythmically, molding the steel on his anvil much as the Empire had once molded him. And, much as the empire had cast him away, a spent tool, he wondered how long until this metal would find itself buried in the road somewhere. A horseshoe, nothing so grand as the mighty forges of Ard Carrig would produce, but a solid, workable piece that spoke of a subtle craftsmanship.
He noticed the other man the moment he walked into the forge, if only from the corner of his eye and attention. He was average in height, wearing a tan cloak that could have as easily belonged to a farmer or a ranking soldier. There was a sword at his hip.
But the stranger made no aggressive motion, so Meralin ignored him. Even a simple thing like a horseshoe would be ruined if he did not tend to it in the time it demanded. So, he continued to mold the steel, and the stranger watched him. A quarter of an hour later, Meralin put the now finished shoe to the side to cool and looked directly at the stranger.
“Need some ironwork?”
The stranger’s lip twitched slightly. “I’ll stick with the castle smiths, thank you. I am looking for someone, and the folks around this village seemed to think you’d possible know where I might find them. I do have the honor of speaking with Meralin, I presume?”
Meralin looked the man over again. There were plenty enough castles around the man could hail from, but his accent placed him from down south. “You do, but I don’t know why they’d say that.”
“You have an attention to detail.” The stranger pointedly looked at the horseshoe. “Also, the person I am looking for would be in need of a blacksmith.”
“And why would he need that?”
“She, actually,” the stranger said. “I’ve been tracking her, and about a mile from town, her horse threw a shoe. Convenient that you happen to be making one as I walk in.”
“This shoe is for a local farmer that I know,” Meralin said. “No women have been by asking for shoes, nor have I seen any walking around with a limping horse, not that I get out of the forge much.”
The stranger smiled slightly. “Mind if I have a look around?”
“Yes, I do,” Meralin said. “I still have plenty of work today. If you don’t have anything to add to it, you should go.”
“This woman is dangerous, Meralin. Has there not been any strange orders today?” The stranger flourished a hand, and the light reflected off a jeweled bracelet half hidden by his shirtsleeve. “A blade? An orb? A disk?”
Meralin tensed at the words. “She’s a Ferromancer, eh? I don’t make their tools, and no Paladins live in our quiet village to even ask for it.”
“All the more a shame,” the stranger said. “A Paladin would make this somewhat easier. If you do see her, leave word for me at the barracks. Tell the soldiers the message is for Coinín. Any information will be rewarded.”
Meralin narrowed his eyes but nodded. “Of course.”
Coinín smiled and left, and Meralin let out a sigh of relief. He had heard of Coinín. He was an Imperial Tracker, and rumored to be one of the best. Where he went, it was with the Immortal Emperor’s writ. What was he doing in a backwater town like Trine? The woman was a Ferromancer.
He followed the Tracker’s steps and looked out into the square. The villagers went about their business, and Coinín was already out of sight. A long repressed feeling rose in Meralin’s chest, and he felt an urge to run to the barracks and offer to help find this fugitive. Ferromancers outside the ranks of the Paladins were rare and dangerous. But why send a Tracker after her instead of a Paladin? It didn’t make sense.
Meralin fought down the urge. He did not meddle in the affairs of the land anymore. He walked back inside and caught the hint of a reflection in one of his windows. An old, gray man looked back at him. Still strong, but definitely old. He ran a hand over his close cropped beard, a white shadow across the dark smear that was his tanned face in the reflection. The empire had molded him once, but now he was as lost and useless as the shoe that woman’s horse threw.
He went back to his forge and began another horseshoe. He was distracted, though, and the shoe took far longer than it should have. Often, he would find himself glancing up the charcoal portrait that hung above the door to his living quarters. The woman stared back at him with a kindly smile. He remembered when it had been drawn, nearly twenty-five years ago.
“Elsie,” he said. “You haven’t aged a day. When did I become so old?”
He then realized he had let the iron sit for too long, and he had to reheat it and start over. When he finally finished, he nearly threw the shoe into the small scrap bin. The farmer who had commissioned it would likely not notice any difference between the two, but Meralin knew.
He was staring at the two horseshoes, nearly identical to the casual eye, when he heard the commotion outside. Trine did not have commotions. That was why he had moved here twenty years ago, after Elsie had died. Yet now, there was one. He walked to a window and looked out.
Three imperial soldiers had a fourth person cornered against the inn across the way. The soldiers, not to mention the villagers who were gathering around and gawking, made it hard to see. Meralin could only assume they had found their dangerous woman.
A chance break in the crowd gave him a good view of the fugitive, and his breath caught. A girl, barely old enough to be called a woman, brandished a dagger at the soldiers. In turn, the soldiers looked unsure, despite their odds. They knew what she could do. Undoubtedly, they had likely already sent someone off to find Coinín and were simply stalling.
The crowd closed again, but the girl’s face stuck with Meralin. He glanced back up to picture of Elsie and sighed. He didn’t meddle. He kept repeating that in his head over and over, even as he picked up his hammer, put it through the loop on his belt, and picked up the first horseshoe he had made. He didn’t meddle. He stepped out into the square.
* * *
Aera crept as best she could through the alleyway. Where was Fagan? He was supposed to have been back an hour ago with something to eat and a new horseshoe. Had the soldiers found him? Or the Tracker? He still seemed to not be able to take the threat of the Tracker seriously. Oh, you worry too much, he would say. Think of it as a point of pride that they think we deserve a Tracker.
As if she had done anything to deserve any of this. Still, at least Fagan was willing to help her. No one else back in Durgan had been willing after the soldiers had stormed her house. If it wasn’t for Fagan, she would probably have shared her mother’s fate.
No, too soon to think of that. A tear rolled down her cheek, and she forced her thoughts elsewhere. Fagan. She had to find him. Even if the reports they had come across only mentioned her, there was a chance they might have found him. She fingered the hilt of her dagger. She could help him. She wasn’t completely defenseless.
She looked out of the alley and saw the throng of people in the street going about their business. She would blend right in, even with her travel stained clothes. She even saw a few girls that might be mistaken for her with the crude description that was going around of her, and Trine was large enough that surely people didn’t know each other for the most part.
She took a step out into the street, and nothing happened. No soldiers descended on her, and no calls of alarm or panic went up. She was just a normal villager going about her business. Now, she only had to find Fagan.
But where was she going to find a blacksmith? She couldn’t very well ask; that would give her up as an outsider in a heartbeat. So, she could only wonder around and try to not look lost while in truth she was completely. Surely a blacksmith couldn’t be that hard to find. But if it wasn’t, what was taking Fagan? All they needed was a shoe; Fagan could put it on the horse easy enough.
No, don’t worry. Just focus on the task at hand. A blacksmith. She walked the streets, looking while trying to not look. She was so intent on it that she didn’t notice the soldiers coming towards her at first. The second her eyes landed on them, she turned around and looked for a place to hide, and then she grimaced. Sure, she thought, blend in. Then, look obviously suspicious the second you see soldiers.
She turned back around and tried to pass her actions of as being absentminded. The soldiers, who were about a half block away, looked at her for a moment, then started walking again, this time obviously for her instead of just out on a patrol.
So much for that plan. She turned back around and bolted into the closest alley. Behind her, people called out as the soldiers pushed through them. Not good. Flashes from that night in Durgan raced through her mind, but she pushed them down. Focus on the task at hand: getting away. Fagan might appear from nowhere to hide her like last time, but she wasn’t going to count on it. She had to get away, blend back in, hide, something.
She burst out of the alley into a square, and her heart dropped. Four soldiers were already there. They drew their swords, and the officer of the group stepped forward.
“Just stay where you are, lass.” He turned to one of the others. “Run to the barracks, boy. Get the Tracker.”
Aera felt her heart jump into her throat and drew her dagger. The soldiers tensed; the Tracker had told them what she was. Apparently he didn’t know how little she actually knew. In all truth, she’d be lucky to hurt someone with the dagger using it just like that, let alone using Ferromancy. But the soldiers didn’t know that, and they kept their distance. She looked back towards the alley, but the soldiers weren’t entirely afraid of her, and they moved to cut her off.
A crowd was forming. She might be able to use that. She used to lament how slight her body was, but right now, being able to slip between the onlookers might save her life. The soldiers, all armored as they were, would have to push through. All she needed was an opening. She took a deep breath and tried to feel the dagger in her hand. If she could wound one of them, that might do the trick. Her vision gained the slightest of a blue tinge, just at the edges. Would it be enough?
Before she could use the dagger, or at least attempt to, a commotion started from the back of the crowd. The soldiers glanced over their shoulders towards it, but kept looking back at her nervously. Did they think she was causing it? She took a step forward, testing their mood, and they held their swords a little higher. They were spooked, but it made them only more likely to run her through, she wagered.
Before she could think of another possible way out, a large, old man pushed his way to the front of the crowd. White hair covered his head and chin, but his bare arms were taut with muscles that would make young men envious. His dark eyes surveyed the scene, and he absently rubbed a hand across his leather apron then rested it on the head of a massive hammer that was at his side. She noticed his other hand held a horseshoe.
“A blacksmith,” she said. “Of all the people to show up.”
The soldiers split their attention equally between her and the blacksmith, but the blacksmith kept his gaze firmly on her. It was as if he was weighing something. He took a deep breath then turned to the lead soldier.
“Taken up to scaring helpless girls, Captain Doyle?” the blacksmith said.
“This is no business of yours, Meralin,” Doyle said. “A Tracker is after this girl.”
“Coinín stopped by my forge earlier today.” Meralin’s tone was conversational, but his stance was wide and ready to fight. “He described a dangerous woman he was looking for, a wild Ferromancer. Not some waif of a girl who barely knows how to hold a dagger.”
“She matches the description, and she ran from us,” Doyle said. “Go back to your forge, old man. This is Empire business.”
“She’s probably just a waif who stole a crust of bread and thought she was caught,” Meralin said. “And look at her. Red hair, pale eyes and skin. That could be half the girls in this town.”
Doyle turned around and pointed his blade at Meralin’s chest. “Are you going to go back to your forge, or are you going to make trouble?”
Meralin locked eyes with Aera. She felt like he was reading her soul with that gaze, and he took a deep breath and tightened his grip on the head of his hammer. She thought for a moment he was going to pull it out, but instead he took a step back and raised his fists.
“Your choice, old man.”
Doyle stabbed at Meralin, but the old man dodged aside quickly. Doyle must have overextended his lunge, because he fell forward slightly, and now Meralin was beside him. The fist holding the horseshoe come up in a smooth arc and hit Doyle squarely in the face. Doyle fell to the ground with a thud of steel and leather, and Meralin’s fists were back up, one covered in Doyle’s blood.
The other two soldiers turned and attacked, and Meralin used the horseshoe to parry one thrust while he completely stepped out of the way of the other. The first soldier brought his free hand around in a punch that landed squarely on Meralin’s chin. The old man didn’t seem to even feel it. The soldier, though, recoiled and screamed as he held his hand limply.
Meralin ignored the first soldier and turned to the second with a smile. The soldier looked from Doyle to his companion and back, then turned to run. Meralin followed after him, and Aera would swear it was almost as if Meralin had an invisible string on the man as he reached back with the horseshoe for another punch. The soldier stumbled and seemed to hang in mid-stride, and then Meralin’s fist connected squarely with the back of his skull. The soldier fell as if all his bones had melted.
Aera looked back to the first soldier, who was coming up behind Meralin with his sword. The blue tint was still on her vision, and she thrust with her dagger towards the soldiers gloved sword hand. A small wave of fatigue hit her, and the glove ripped open, along with the top of the soldier’s hand. He screamed again, and Meralin wheeled around and punched him squarely in the face.
In the course of the fight, which seemed to have only lasted a few moments, the crowd had backed away and markedly thinned out. Meralin looked at the soldiers, then back to Aera. He then tossed the horseshoe at her feet.
“I hear you need that,” he said. “Get going before the Tracker gets here.”
He turned around and walked to his forge as if he hadn’t just beaten three armed men barehanded. She glanced down. Well, with a horseshoe, which made it seem all the more preposterous. She bent to pick the horseshoe up, but paused when her fingers brushed it. The moment flesh touched metal, the world seemed to flash blue. She recoiled and stared at the worked metal, then slowly touched it again. The flash came again, though not as strong. He had used Ferromancy. With a horseshoe?
She stared after the old blacksmith, and a small voice urged her to run away, to find Fagan, to get out of town. She ignored it and followed after the strange, old man.
* * *
Meralin laid his hammer across the anvil as the girl burst into the forge. “You had best be moving on, lass. Coinín won’t be so easy to deal with as those soldiers.”
“You’re a Ferromancer!” she said.
He glanced back at her then continued to move around the forge, readying it for more work. “I believe you have us confused. You’re the Ferromancer. I’m just a blacksmith.”
She held up the horseshoe. “I can feel your touch on this. I don’t know how, but you used this when you were fighting those soldiers.”
He paused in the middle of working the bellows. She felt his touch? He sighed and shook his head. “Alright, lass. I’m a Ferromancer. That’s a rare talent you have, being able to feel when steel has been used recently. But, I have a feeling you don’t know all that much about your gift.”
“I know enough to cut a soldier’s hand.”
“Aye, that you do,” he said. “But not enough to go ducking out of the way. I can handle Coinín when he comes in asking why I beat up his soldiers. I don’t think I could handle him if you were in my forge.”
She held the horseshoe to her chest and glanced outside. “Coinín, that’s the Tracker?”
“Aye, and he’ll be along shortly, I’m sure.” Meralin stepped over to a pile of stock bars and looked up at her. “Lass, I don’t know what trouble you’ve gotten into, but I really don’t need to be a part of it.”
“Then why’d you help me out there?”
“I . . . .” He ran a hand through his hair. “I had a daughter, once.”
She took a step forward and reached a hand out. “Did the Empire find her? Was she a Ferromancer, too?”
“No,” he said. “Now you had best leave.”
She didn’t move. “I need your help, Meralin. You’re right. I don’t know how to use my power, but you obviously do. Please, the Empire killed my mother, and she never did anything to attract their attention. They took my baby brother. Please!”
Meralin put the stock bar into the coals. “And what would you have of me, lass? I’m an old man settled in my ways. I shouldn’t have helped you, but I have. Don’t make me regret it.”
“We’re trying to get to Doraberg,” she said. “To the resistance. Maybe they can help me get my brother back.”
“I’m traveling with . . . a friend,” she said. “Fagan. He helped me sneak out of Durgan. But, I don’t know where he is right now. I was looking for him when the soldiers cornered me.”
“Then you’d best be on your way.”
She flinched and lowered her head. “I . . . thank you for the horseshoe.”
Meralin watched her turn and leave, then checked the iron, but it wasn’t hot enough yet, so he simply stared into the forge fire. A family of Ferromancers, one killed, one on the run, and one taken. Taken? The Paladin’s official stance on Ferromancers was one could either join the order or keep a low profile. They only ever would attack someone if they were making a nuisance of themselves. They never kidnapped.
But was this even done by a Paladin? The girl hadn’t said, but if a Paladin had been involved, it would have been him, not the Tracker, that would have been after her.
He looked up at the portrait of Elsie then down to the dust covered floorboards beneath the anvil. What was he thinking? The girl’s story, if it was even true, was tragic, but that was how things worked in the Empire. He couldn’t save everyone. He couldn’t even save those who were close to him.
He grabbed the other horseshoe and stood in front of the anvil. Blue filled the edges of his vision, and he punched towards the anvil with the metal. The anvil grudgingly moved without his hand ever touching it, sliding away from him until the floorboards were revealed. He let the blue fade and tossed the horseshoe aside.
He lifted the floorboards and coughed as dust filled the air. Underneath where the anvil had once sat, a three foot long bundle wrapped in heavy cloth seemed to taunt him. Try and make a difference, it seemed to say, and see how feeble you are.
“Elsie,” he said softly. “Would our daughter have looked like her, one day?”
He picked the bundle up and ran into his living quarters, grabbing the picture off its hook as went.