Rust on the Blade Chapter Two
By Richard Fife
He had barely found a pack and started to shove a few sets of spare clothes and some supplies in it when he heard the door to the forge slam open. In all truth, he was surprised that Coinín had taken this long. He must have been hard to find.
“Meralin!” Coinín screamed from inside the forge. “I know you’re here!”
He probably did at that. Trackers were unnatural in pursuit of their prey, and Meralin was now in the man’s sights. Perhaps, if he hadn’t moved the anvil, if he wasn’t packing to leave, he could have talked himself out of any trouble, ended it with only a fine. Now, he doubted anything would save him from the Tracker’s wrath.
The door between forge and living area shuttered but held, and Meralin closed his pack, picked up an old chisel, and ran to the back of the building, where a heavily barred door led to the alley. As he slid the bar open, the door to the forge cracked. Coinín and his soldiers would be through in a few more moments. Meralin hadn’t given himself much of a lead.
He closed the door and pointed the chisel head-first at the door. He embraced the metal in his hand and swung it from right to left. On the other side of the door, he heard the bar crash back into place and, if he was lucky, jam. That might buy him some time.
“Stop right there, blacksmith!”
He turned calmly and saw two soldiers at the mouth of the alley, running towards him. He turned to them and pointed the chisel just over the shoulder of the right soldier, and the blue flared in his vision to point of almost being blinding. He swung again from right to left. The men both slammed into the left wall and fell to the ground as if a bull had just plowed into them. They groaned, but they didn’t get up.
Meralin let the blue fade and felt exhaustion nearly overwhelm him. It had been so long since he used his powers, and even longer since he was forced to work with such low quality steel. The wrapped bundle seemed to call to him, but he ignored it. He almost wondered why he even brought it; he was resolved to not use it. On the same token, it was part of who he was, and to leave it behind would have been the same as leaving behind his hand.
So, he’d have to do this with stealth. He rushed past the fallen soldiers and into the mill of the square, which had quickly returned. Even a street brawl didn’t keep folk from their business for too long. There were a number of gawkers around the entrance to the forge, though. How many soldiers had Coinín brought?
He shoved the chisel into his belt and cast off his apron. Then, while he wasn’t directly touching any metal, he gently reached for his power, tinting only the furthest edges of his vision. He looked over to where the girl had cut the soldier’s hand and, plain as day to his eyes and invisible to anyone else, he saw two small pools of blue on the ground, and two trails that lead into his forge and one that came back out. He followed the one that came out and tried to ignore the one that he was leaving.
Could Coinín follow these trails? He doubted it, or at least he doubted that the Tracker could follow them as well as a real Ferromancer. If he could, he wouldn’t have had to come knocking on Meralin’s door to begin with.
The trail led into an alley and started to gradually fade. At least she hadn’t tried to use any other Ferromancy since the fight. He let go of his power and nearly fell to the ground from the wave of exhaustion. Was he truly so old? No, it must be that he was just out of practice.
Thankfully, the exhaustion quickly passed, and he looked around the alley and found a few signs of recent passage. The girl was trying, but she didn’t know really how to skulk about a city. Her reliance on alleys proved it.
He followed the twists of the alleys and the occasional muddy footprint until he saw them stop in a small, recessed doorway. Shadows kept him from seeing what was inside from as far back as he was, and he didn’t move any closer.
“Lass,” he said. “Come on out now, lass. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The girl slowly poked her head out of the doorway and stole a glance in the other direction and over Meralin’s shoulder. “What are you doing here?”
“Getting you out of trouble, lass,” he said. “Or getting myself into it. Perhaps both. Have you found your friend?”
“You’re going to help me?” She took a step out into the alley. Her knuckles were white around the hilt of her drawn dagger. “Why?”
“Because an innocent shouldn’t have to stand alone.” He sighed and shook his head. “And I’ve a feeling you’re about as innocent as they come.”
“Is that so?” She looked around again. “Think your Paladin now, old man? I’ve heard their codes enough in stories. Going to tell me that ‘no injustice should be left unanswered’ now?”
He felt his lip curl into a bit of a sneer. “Paladins aren’t the only ones who can do right, nor are wicked men the only ones who can do wrong, lass. You best be remembering that. Do you want my help finding your friend and getting to Doraberg, or shall I go back to my forge and explain to Coinín I had just decided to go out for a brisk walk that happened to leave two of his soldiers unconscious in an alley.”
She flinched at his tone and finally lowered her dagger. “How’d you find me?”
“Ferromancy at first,” he said. “Then simple tracking. Alleys are bad ways to hide in cities. The muck leaves a clear trail, and you can blend into the crowd much easier when there is a crowd to blend into.”
“Ferromancy? What shape of metal lets you do that?”
He shook his head. “I don’t think we have time for lessons, lass. If I found you, Coinín can’t be far behind. Especially once he finds the right alley to look in. But Ferromancy won’t help us find your friend, unless he’s a Ferromancer too.”
She shook her head. “No, Fagan is just a stable boy. He was supposed to be finding us food and a horseshoe.”
A shuffle and voices echoed from somewhere behind, and he walked up to the girl and herded her in the other direction. “Tell me more while we move, lass. We need to get back to the main streets.”
“My name’s Aera.”
He glanced down at her. “Aera then. Let’s get to moving, but quietly at first.”
He led them in silence to the first main street he could find then started them on a meandering path around the village. After they had been walking for ten minutes, he let out a heavy breath.
“Alright then. Where was the last place you saw your friend, and how long ago was it?”
“About an hour or so ago,” she said. “He left me in an alley a few blocks from your forge.”
“And he headed in my direction?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “We were deep enough in the alley that I couldn’t see which way he turned when he reached the main street.”
“No matter, really,” he said. “An hour or so ago, looking for a blacksmith. Well, he didn’t find me, so he probably found the only other blacksmith in town. We’ll try there, first.”
She looked at him and bit her lip. “Won’t the Tracker be there?”
“Coinín likely thinks we have everything we need and are trying to leave the city. It will take him some time to realize we haven’t left yet, and we can use his confusion to our advantage when the time comes.”
“You know an awful lot about how a Tracker thinks for a blacksmith.”
He glanced down at her and frowned. She was a full head shorter than him, and his height most likely made for an imposing image. “I wasn’t always a blacksmith, lass. You best remember that.” He looked back ahead and started them towards the other forge. “What does your friend look like?”
“About as tall as you.” She stood a little taller. “Short hair, the color of hay, and dark eyes.”
“His family moved here from Doraberg, but he was born here.” She hesitated. “Is that a problem?”
“He’ll stick out. Coinín was asking after any strange people making strange orders, not just you.” He sighed and shook his head. What had he gotten himself into? “Come on, we are almost there.”
Aera cupped her mug of tea and picked at the lunch of bread and cheese Meralin had bought her. Not that she wasn’t hungry; she was famished and this was her third plate. But now that the edge had been taken off her hunger, she only felt worry. The Tracker was still somewhere in town looking for her, and Meralin had deposited her here, a block away from the forge, while he went and asked after Fagan.
But, what if Fagan had been caught? What if Coinín was already at the forge and had captured Meralin. Was the Tracker on his way there this very moment while she poked at the heel of bread on her plate?
No! She would not let herself think like that. Red flames against a night sky seemed to flash before her eyes. Her mother’s screams, the clash of steel. The wind on her face as she ran, and the strong hand that grabbed her from behind.
She took a deep breath and found her knuckles white as they grabbed her wood-hilted knife. Little good it had done. Meralin was right; she knew next to nothing about Ferromancy. Perhaps he would teach her. If he returned. No, not those thoughts. He would be back, and with Fagan at that. She just had to be patient.
She pushed the plate of food away and cleaned her knife before sheathing it. Would a bit of cheese lessen the blade’s power? She had no clue. So many questions. Why had her mother refused to teach her? If she had known, perhaps . . . .
Her thoughts kept drifting back to that night. She would not think about it! There was nothing she could do, and she did everything she could. Now, she just had to keep moving forward. And, hopefully, next time she would not be nearly as helpless.
Yes, forward thoughts. She needed to learn Ferromancy, and she didn’t want to have to wait or count on Meralin. For all she knew, he had been found by Coinín and was dead in the street. Still, he had given her a hint already.
She pulled the horseshoe out of her pouch and looked at it in her lap, taking care that no one saw what she was doing. Meralin didn’t think she knew how to be discrete. Well, she could be, when she wanted to.
He had used this, somehow. The feeling of power was gone from it, but she could not forget the strong wash of blue she had seen after picking it up. So much power. Even when she tried with all her might, the most she got was a tinge of blue at the corner of her eye, and just touching this had nearly blinded her.
But how did it work? A blade could cut at a distance. What could a horseshoe do? She thought back to the fight, about how the guards had moved oddly around Meralin. Off balance, hesitating mid-step like they were being held by something. Did it confuse people? She wondered.
A serving girl was walking around the floor, collecting abandoned mugs from tables. There was only one way to figure out what the horseshoe could do. Aera calmed herself and reached for the power while thinking as hard as she could of the metal in her hand. She felt like she could feel where the hammer had beaten the metal into shape, and then there was the blue.
She tried to remember how Meralin had moved and held the horseshoe, but her memory of the fight was a blur at best. There had to be motion; a dagger did not cut unless you moved it. She continued to hold the shoe under the table by the bend with the tips facing to her left. When the waitress walked in front of her, Aera pushed her hand forward. Nothing happened.
Aera frowned and tried again when the girl passed by again, this time pulling her hand back. Again, not so much as a stumble. What was she doing wrong? She let out a frustrated sigh and dropped her hand to her side. To her left, a series of large crashes drew every eye in the room.
The girl had left a tray of empty mugs on a table while she wiped down the one next to it, and now the tray and mugs were on the floor, several of the mugs shattered.
“Cailin,” the barkeep screamed. “Why’d you leave that tray there?”
Cailin didn’t look up from where she was already on her knees, cleaning up the mess. “It was in the middle of the table, I swear!”
“Then how are they on the floor now?” the barkeep said.
Aera looked down at her hand. The horseshoe had a faint feeling of energy about it. Not enough to tint her sight, but it was unmistakably there. What had she done? Heavy footfalls brought her eyes back up, and Meralin stood over the table with his eyes tracing a line from the broken mugs to Aera.
“You shouldn’t play in public,” he said, keeping his voice low. “You shouldn’t play at all. Come on.”
She stuffed the horseshoe back into her pouch and followed after Meralin, who was already halfway to the door. She caught up to him outside.
“Well? Did you find him?”
“Camdensaid he’d been by there,” he said. “And, much as I would have done, laughed in his face. It isn’t exactly like blacksmiths keep a pile of horseshoes lying around. We make them when people need them. He sent your friend over to a farrier that isn’t too far from here. Your friend seemed to also have an interesting sense of how much a horseshoe should cost.”
Aera’s cheeks warmed at the veiled insult to Fagan. “What does that mean?”
“He was trying to buy a horseshoe for the price of a nail.Camdensuggested he might be able to put in a few hours of work at the farrier in exchange for the shoe, though.”
“Then he is probably still there!” Aera felt a wave of relief, but it was quickly squashed by the look on Meralin’s face.
“Aye, he might be. But, a few minutes before I came by, some soldiers came by asking the same questions, andCamdensent them the same way.”
“He sold us out?” Aera grit her teeth. “How could he?”
“Careful now, lass,” Meralin said. “Camdenhas been a friend for a good many years, and he had no reason to think twice about the soldiers asking after a strange boy. Not everyone is out to get you, but not everyone knows to help, either. If it is any consolation, as far asCamdenis concern, I was never by asking questions.”
She bit back a comment that would probably just set Meralin off on some rambling lecture. Old men, she had found, had a tendency towards that, and Meralin was not proving any exception. Imparting wisdom, they would call it. More like lording it over people how much they knew, or at least thought they knew. Still, Meralin was helping, and had likely found Fagan faster than she would have alone. She could tolerate him for that, and she would tolerate him further if he’d teach her Ferromancy.
They walked in silence for a block. Finally, she found her voice, or perhaps it was her courage. “Meralin, you said there was no time for lessons in the alley. Does that mean . . . .”
“I haven’t decided.” His tone said he had, but he didn’t want to say. Which probably meant he wouldn’t, but wanted to keep her quiet.
“I need to learn,” she said. “You teaching me would make it faster and safer. I’ve heard it can be dangerous, learning alone.”
“Aye,” he said. “Dangerous and sometimes deadly. It isn’t always empty mugs that get broken.”
“I’m going to try no matter what.” He cringed slightly at her tone, but he did not respond. “Please, Meralin, I—”
“Shush now, lass.” He stopped at a corner and looked around it casually. “This isn’t the place to be talking about that. There’s trouble.”
He moved away from the corner so she could look, and when she did, she saw a small group of soldiers, and at the middle of them, Fagan. She reached for her dagger, but a strong hand encircled her wrist.
“Not that way, lass.” Meralin pulled her back around the corner. “He’s bait in a trap, and you’re the prey. If you rush in there, you might as well tie the rope around your own wrists.”
She felt a bubble of fear in her gut, but she pushed it down. “We aren’t going to leave him. Fagan saved me from the Imperials. I’m going to save him.”
“That you are,” Meralin said. “But not by rushing in there. Give me the horseshoe.”
“So you’re going to rush in there instead?” She straightened her back and looked up at the man. He was tall and broad, an imposing figure even when he wasn’t trying. “I can fight, too. I already proved it.”
He tilted his head and looked at her, as if seeing something for the first time. “Aye, you have fight in you, but if we are both fighting, no one is going to be there to make sure your friend gets out safe. Give me the horseshoe then circle around the block to the other side of the street. Keep an eye out for any soldiers that are milling about, but don’t act against them.”
She looked him in the eye, trying to figure out if he was trying to manipulate her. In all truth, he probably was, but there was little she could do. She opened her pouch and gave him the cold metal, still slightly charged from her experiment.
“What are you going to do?”
“I am going to push Fagan to the end of the street. He is going to be sore, so you’ll need to get him on his feet and get as far from here as you can. Where is your horse?”
“We hid her outside of town, in a clearing west of here.”
“Then head north,” he said. “Don’t stop or wait for me, I’ll catch up. Do not head for your horse.”
“Trust me, lass.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I’ve been thinking about things Coinín said to me, and they don’t add up. I had a feeling you hid the horse out of town, and I have a feeling it isn’t alone right now. Do not go there.”
“But without our horse—”
“It will be harder, but not impossible. Go now. We can’t afford to waste time. I’ll give you enough time to get around the block, but be quick.”
Aera bit back more questions, and remembered what he had said about not always being a blacksmith. It was obvious Meralin had dealt with a Tracker before. Perhaps he had been hunted once much as Aera was now? She pushed the questions back for later and hurried to circle the block while keeping an eye out for soldiers.
When she reached the other intersection, the soldiers and Fagan had not moved. The more she looked at the scene, the more she could see what Meralin meant. It was so obviously a trap that she would have had to be blind to not see it. She had been blind to it, though.
She only had a few moments to wait, and then Fagan was suddenly flying through the air as if a strong breeze had come out of nowhere and picked only him up. He crashed into a fruit stand just past the intersection, and the guards all drew swords and started following after Fagan. How was she supposed to get him away unseen?
Then, the soldier closest to her flew backwards, crashing into two other men. Then all three of them were flung as if by an invisible hand across the street and through a window, taking another soldier with them.
“Ha, is that all you have?” Meralin’s voice boomed from down the road, where he was standing in the middle of the street, the horseshoe in one hand and an old chisel in the other. All the guards turned and started to run towards Meralin, and Aera rushed over to Fagan.
“Fagan! Are you alright?”
Fagan looked up at her with dazed eyes. “Aera? What—? Was that you?”
“A friend,” she said. “Come on, we have to move.”
“I don’t know if I can.” He rubbed his head. “What was that?”
“No time to explain, come on!” She grabbed his arm and tried to haul him up. After a moment, he seemed to realize what was going on and pulled himself up. His eyes were dazed, and she wondered exactly how hard Meralin had pushed him. The sound of fighting—metal on metal and men screaming—filled the street behind them, and she led Fagan north.
Meralin paused and tried to ignore the bone-weary pain that seemed to fill his entire body. Aera had just dragged the boy away. Good, he hadn’t hit him too hard. After so long, it was hard to judge exactly how painful a push and a landing could be, and he had been forced to trust that the boy was young and healthy and could take a tumble.
He parried a sword thrust with the chisel and jabbed at the soldier with the horseshoe. More power drained from him, and the blue started to seep from his vision, but the man went flying in an arc and over a nearby roof.
The soldiers were well disciplined and did not break, even with over half their number groaning on the ground or blown completely from the fight. Of course, their single-minded pursuit to stop Meralin had let their true quarry and their bait slip away. He hoped it was that simple. Now all he had to do was get away.
Two of the remaining three soldiers were back on their feet and running at him. By now, he had pushed or clubbed all of them at least once, but with the organized assault they were pressing him with, many times it had hardly been a final blow. Now, though, with only two, he could be more discriminating.
He pointed the chisel at loose cobblestone and flicked his wrist, sending the rock in a lazy arc that passed between him and the soldiers. Soon as it was between his fist one of the soldier’s faces, he pushed it with the horseshoe. The rock went only a little off course—not a perfect square hit—and a sound not unlike a bell ringing filled the street as the rock glanced off the soldier’s helmet. He fell.
Meralin pointed back to the side again, and the other soldier’s eyes widened. He rushed at Meralin recklessly, and Meralin swung the chisel around in a full swing, catching the soldier’s helmet in the arc of power and sending him flying into a stone column holding up a nearby balcony.
The last soldier still able to fight had since gotten back to his feet and was likewise rushing headlong. Meralin swiped back, but the soldier ducked into a roll at the last moment, and the arc of power moved only air. The soldier’s roll was awkward in his armor, but he was still closing fast. Meralin raised his other hand and pushed with all the power he had left, hoping to drive the soldier’s head backwards with a violent jerk.
The soldier was mid-lunge when the power hit him, and he flinched, but that was all. The blue left Meralin’s vision and a feeling as though he had run a mile in full armor settled on his shoulders. The soldier’s finished his lunge, and the Meralin attempted to block with the chisel.
The blade danced past the chisel and bit into Meralin’s arm, scoring a slice half the length of his bicep. The chisel fell from Meralin’s hand, and he followed it.
“I knew you’d wear out,” the soldier said, panting. He drew his sword back for a final blow. “Coinín didn’t say anything about taking you alive, just the girl. I’m going to enjoy this, old man.”
The blade fell, and Meralin rolled out of the way. The blade broke a cobblestone as it hit, and the soldier swore under his breath.
“Just give up and die!” The soldier drew his sword back again, but Meralin did not wait for it to fall. He forced his muscles to work, and he pushed himself up towards the soldier. The man’s eyes went wide, and then the horseshoe made contact with his nose. Blood sprayed out onto Meralin’s hand and face, and he punched the soldier again, following him down to the street. A third time, and he felt reasonably sure the man was senseless.
Meralin rolled the soldier onto his side, and checked to make sure he was still breathing. Harsh words of hot blood aside, the soldier was just doing his job, and Meralin would not wish him dead over that. It was a noble calling, being an Imperial Soldier. They were just opposite Meralin, today.
He pulled himself up and bit back a howl of pain. The gash in his arm would need attention. He hoped it could wait. He grabbed one of the soldier’s cloaks and wrapped his arm as best he could, then hobbled north.