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We buried my uncle the last week of August, the year after the Fire Warlock retired. When the news he was dead reached me, a day and a half down the coast, I left my gear in the smithy, promised the master to be back inside a week, and rode north through low clouds and drizzle, too wrapped up in memories and worries to think much about the road. The next morning, standing in the inn's stable door with a grey wall of fog outside, I couldn't avoid it.
"To get to Crossroads," the ostler said, "I'd go west, around the hills."
"That would take two days —"
"I said I was in a hurry."
"You asked what I would do. I'm never in a hurry. But if you're that hot to get there ..." He shrugged. "It's either the track over the hills — slow going and dangerous in the fog — or the road to Quayside."
Earth wizards kept up the Quayside Road, along the shore, as a favour to the Water Guild. Capped with paving stones all the way from London, it was a fast, easy ride. I could be in Crossroads with hours to spare.
He said, "With the fog, you should be safe enough going through Quayside. We've had aristos complain that they've been to Quays and back, and never saw the damned thing."
My jaw dropped. "They can't have wanted to see it."
He laughed. "I said aristos. What'd you expect? They ain't got as much sense as a donkey. But even they don't go to Quays unless they've been summoned, or got kinsfolk on trial. I figure they want to brag that they've seen it and lived to tell."
"Fools." I led my horse out into the fog.
The ostler walked across the yard with me. "Don't you ever worry about robbers ganging up on you?"
I fingered the folded paper in my pocket, and grinned. "Not anymore, since an air witch gave me a charm for protection."
"Gave you? That lot never parts with anything for free. Sounds to me like you charmed her."
I pulled my collar up against the damp. "Wasn't trying to."
He snickered. "Aye, sure. What does the charm do?"
"Makes robbers see two of me."
The fog soon swallowed the noise he made laughing. Unwilling to risk a fall on stone, I led Charcoal on foot until the road curved to run along the shore, where I climbed on and rode out on the sand below the high tide line. Even with the light growing, everything past Charcoal's nose was lost in the murk. A steady breeze blew in off the North Sea, and we inched along the beach more by smell, sound, and feel than sight.
Finding our way kept me too busy to notice the wind picking up until it started punching holes in the fog. I rode into a gap, and the rising sun threw my shadow half a mile inland.
I hunkered down on Charcoal's neck and cursed. He was fresh and eager, even with a heavy load on his back, and surged into a canter. Any other day I would have enjoyed the steady duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-duh, but if I let him run he would wear himself out too soon, and we wouldn't reach Crossroads in time. And anything faster than a trot would draw too much attention. I reined him in sooner than he wanted, and he fought with me.
Ahead, fog still hung thick across the road and around the islands offshore. At a steady trot we might pass the causeway before the fog lifted. I looked away. I didn't want to see that castle hiding in the mist.
"If a wanted man tries to sneak past the Crystal Palace," Gran would say, "it will shine like a lighthouse, and pin him down with a beam as bright as the sun. Water wizards will rise out of the surf and catch him. He won't have a chance."
"Dad, is she telling the truth? A beam of light is fire magic, not water magic."
Dad didn't have much truck with some of Gran's stories, but this one made him look uneasy. "I don't know, Duncan. They say there's magic from all four guilds in the Water Office. It doesn't pay to count on the Frost Maiden being limited to water magic."
I made the sign to ward off the evil eye, and pulled my hat brim down. I'd gotten rowdy sometimes with the other lads, and poached a few grouse, but I wouldn't have dared come this way with anything serious on my conscience. The Water Guild weren't likely to hunt me, as long as I didn't give the duke any lip.
Fat chance of that, with Uncle Will dead.
Across the water, a flash caught my eye. I looked up, and was blinded. I flung an arm over my eyes, and yelled. Charcoal reared. I landed, rolling, in the surf, and came up spitting sand. I lurched towards dry ground, but couldn't see where I was going. You can't hide from a wizard anyway. When they caught me ...
I shaded my eyes and turned a full circle. No water wizards rose out of the waves. The only thing moving besides water and mist was Charcoal, galloping up the beach.
Damn his hide. He was running towards the causeway.
By squinting through my fingers, I made out half-a-dozen little suns on towers poking out of the fog. I heard Gran chanting, "Water Guild Hall, more glass than wall." Mirrors, that's all it was — goddamned, frostbitten mirrors.
I threw the old up-yours sign in the direction of the Crystal Palace, reached for my hat, and stopped cold halfway down. I couldn't see another soul, but that didn't mean they weren't watching. I'd probably just pissed off the whole Water Guild.
Dad used to say my big mouth would land me in a stinking mountain of trouble someday. I hadn't even opened my mouth this time.
I grabbed my hat before it floated away and walked with my heart thumping in my chest. Nobody except the Fire Warlock ever pissed off the Water Guild and got away with it. Even the king, who had bloody loud rows with the Fire Warlock, tiptoed around the Frost Maiden. That water witch had enough magic in her little finger to freeze everybody in Nettleton. She must like freezing people; she did it often enough.
I went from cold to hot to cold a dozen times. The Water Guild had no right to scare the devil out of law-abiding travellers, or to ruin my best clothes. Sand stuck to my proud new dark blue coat, and as it dried it turned splotchy with salt. Salt rimed my hat, too, and scrubbing at it with my sleeve didn't help.
The fog lifted before I caught up with Charcoal; the Crystal Palace glittered in the sun. I risked a glance, and straightened up, staring, until my eyes watered. Nobody ever told me it was pretty. But then, nobody in Abertee who did business in Quayside ever admitted seeing it. I'd heard folk living in Quayside got so used to it they didn't blink after a while. Seemed hard to believe.
If I had dared, I would've turned around and ridden south. The funeral could go on without me. Uncle Will was past caring. I didn't owe him anything.
Who was I kidding? I'd served my apprenticeship under him. I owed him just about everything. And turning around would look like I had something to hide. They would come after me, then, for sure, and show me how bad Water Guild curses really are. There was nothing for it but to brazen it out.
* * *
Boats were setting out from the wharves in Quays, out on the island, and traffic flowed in a steady stream from Quayside to Quays: merchants taking their goods to market and whimpering mundanes on their way to the courts, but no water wizards were in sight so early.
Once over the bridge into Quayside, a line of trees along the river blocked sight of the Crystal Palace. Silver jingled in my pocket and the smells of bread baking and bacon frying tickled my nose. I rode into an inn yard and got off Charcoal. The door opened, and a water wizard stepped out. I climbed back on. The water wizard gawked at me, then turned back to talk to the innkeeper. I rode through town and didn't stop until I was out of sight of the whole lot — Quays, Quayside, and the Crystal Palace. I stopped to eat my cold breakfast of oatcakes and mutton where the river curved for a good view of the grandest hall in Abertee, the White Duke's manor house. The first White Duke had started it and the family added to it over the centuries, until it was big enough to house a town. Built of the local granite, it would do a king proud.
The duke loved it, Uncle Will had said. His duchess hated it.
Off to the side, a mountain of yellowish marble the duchess had ordered hauled up the coast on barges sat, waiting. Had been waiting for three years, for her to make up her mind about the layout of her new wing. I hoped she'd lost interest. Maybe she'd come to her senses and realised the marble would look foul next to the granite.
As I rode closer, a work crew drove up with a wagon and unloaded more marble. Maybe she'd decided to pull down the old house and start fresh. I pulled my hat brim down and kicked Charcoal into a gallop.
I reined in at the new front gate. Master Hamish got the job after I'd left his smithy, and I'd not been this way since. I shook my head over the sloppy workmanship. He'd been pissed off, no doubt, and small blame to him — the duchess had been known to change her mind half-a-dozen times, and not pay for the extra work — but if they'd given me the job, I'd've done something to be proud of. Not that they would've considered giving that to a journeyman. Even for a master, jobs that special don't come often in Abertee.
Most local smiths called themselves lucky to get fancy work once or twice. If they knew I wanted more, I'd never hear the end of it. Getting above myself, they'd say. I heard enough of that already.
Across from the gate, workmen were laying granite blocks for a new jetty. She'd be paying Abertee's stonemasons for that. I went on my way, nursing a small sense of satisfaction.
* * *
Near midday I reached the fork to Drayman's Ford, and was a quarter mile down the wrong road before I remembered I was due in Crossroads and not home. I hadn't been home to Nettleton in months. Turning around was a wrench in the gut. Charcoal didn't like it either. I rubbed his head. "Sorry, old boy. We'll go home tomorrow, after the funeral."
From the fork, it would have been hours yet to Nettleton, but in the other direction, a few minutes to the bridge over the Tee, then an hour to Crossroads. I would get there on time.
Uncle Will's prodding, plus the lure of higher wages and more interesting work, had sent me away from Abertee, but I hadn't liked living among strangers for so long. I would go back to finish the job I'd started, but when that was done I would collect my tools, and turn back north. With Uncle Will no longer blocking it, the Blacksmith's Guild in Abertee would be sure to promote me to master.
On the far side of the river, cousins on their way to the funeral waved and yelled something I couldn't make out about the bridge. The day had turned sunny and warm. I would soon be among friends and family, I'd be home tomorrow, and the Frost Maiden hadn't turned me into an icicle. I started whistling a drinking song.
The village by the bridge was unchanged since I'd worked there, three years gone. I turned the corner to the bridge, and stopped.
There was no bridge. Water boiled around the support columns, but the roadway was gone. There weren't even heaps of stone messing up the river's flow. It was like the roadway had never been. I got off my horse and stared.
The smith's wife came out, wiping her hands on her apron. "Good to see you, Duncan. Wasn't expecting you to come this way. You'll have to go the long way around."
"What happened?" I said. "It was in bad shape, but ..."
"The duchess sent out a crew to steal stone for her new jetty."
My mouth hung open. "You're joking." I screwed my eyes shut, then looked again. "You're not joking."
"She said she never comes this far out into this God-forsaken wilderness, so she didn't need the bridge, and she wouldn't pay for new stone to be quarried."
"That is just ..." I couldn't find a word strong enough. Uncle Will had been after the duke for years to rebuild the bridge. The duke didn't keep up the roads and bridges like he should've, but he'd never broken one before. No wonder Uncle Will had had apoplexy.
I kicked at broken bits of stone scattered at the edge of the river. "How's your dad?" His house was within spitting distance of the bridge's other end.
"His pleurisy's getting worse, but he won't leave and move in with us. I had been crossing every day with soup, but now ..." She shook her head. "We're collecting timber to build a makeshift bridge, but we can't start on it until they're finished with the old one and out of the way."
"If you don't finish before the harvest is over ..."
"Aye, it'll be a hard winter. If folk can't pay their rent ..."
After a while I climbed back on Charcoal and headed for the ford. The urge to whistle never came back.CHAPTER 2
We crossed the river, and Charcoal fought me when I turned his head west. Couldn't blame him — my hands on the reins told him Crossroads, but my knees said north, and Nettleton. I got down and walked him past the next bend. After I climbed back on, he plodded along with his head down, both of us wanting to turn around and run for home.
My grim mood lifted a little as we neared Crossroads. Even from a distance it was clear Uncle Will was getting the send-off he deserved. The crowd overflowed the church, the churchyard, and blocked the road. All our kin and every craftsman in the district must have come. I had been counting on sleeping in my cousin's house, but might have to settle for the barn.
Granny Mildred was waiting at the healers' guildhall. She walked out into the middle of the road, planted herself foursquare in front of Charcoal with her arms crossed, and glared. "Get down off your high horse, you young fool, and be polite. I'll not have any of your belligerence."
"Belligerence, my arse. I'm not the one in a lather." I slid down. "What should I be pissed off about?"
She jabbed me in the chest with a bony finger. "I'll not have you saying that if I hadn't been wasting time on the other side of the district, Will Archer wouldn't be lying dead in that church today."
"I wouldn't say that. Why would anybody?"
Her face, all wrinkles and sags, scrunched up tight. "Because maybe it would be so."
"Hogwash." I wrapped an arm around her and pulled her against me. "Tell me who's been saying rot like that and I'll have a word with them."
She bawled into my shirt. I gave her a shake. "Who?" A soft voice behind me said, "The only one saying that is Mildred herself."
I glanced over my shoulder, and saw freckles splashed across a darling of a face. Where had she been hiding?
I gave Granny Mildred another shake. "Tell me what happened. The message I got just said he'd died of apoplexy and the funeral was today."
Freckles said, "We were away, treating children with chicken pox, when Master Will had his attack. He was dead before we got back."
The face under the freckles was even better on a second look. Not gorgeous, but the kind of face a man wouldn't get tired of looking at in a hurry. Cute little turned up nose ...
I said, "Apoplexy wasn't a big surprise. She'd been telling him for years he was eating himself to death."
Granny Mildred mumbled, "Didn't do any good, did it? I told him so often he stopped listening. The lassies' mum told us about the broken bridge. We should have headed straight back here to tell Will, but we spent half the afternoon gossiping. If I'd been in town when he had his fit ..."
Freckles said, "Mrs McAllister needed to talk, and you did her a kindness to listen."
I said, "Don't beat yourself up. You're a healer, not a fortune-teller. You couldn't have known —"
"I knew he'd be dreadful angry, and would march off to give the duke a piece of his mind. I should've kept an eye on him."
"Keep talking like that, and we'll think you're going soft."
She mumbled some rubbish about me being a good lad, and pushed away from me. Freckles handed her a handkerchief, and Granny honked into it.
Most folk get nervous when I loom over them. Freckles wasn't even looking at me. She was watching Granny Mildred. I watched Freckles. Her eyes were some funny colour I couldn't put a name to. Her mouth was begging for a kiss ...
Granny Mildred poked me in the ribs. "Mind your manners, sonny. Be polite to my visitor."
I tipped my hat. "I'd be happy to stay and talk, but I've got to get to the church."
"Looking like that?" Granny Mildred said. "What've you been doing, you young scamp? Sleeping on the shore?"
"Fell off my horse."
She snorted. "You expect me to believe that?"
Freckles gave me a sharp glance. Mildred brushed at my coat. The sand fell off; the dried salt disappeared.
"Thank you, ma'am." I held out my hat. "Can you clean this off, too?"
"Expect a lot, don't you?" She scrubbed the brim; my three-year-old hat looked as good as new when she handed it back. "Don't know why I waste my magic on the likes of you. Now get on with you." She gave me a swat on the arm. "And don't worry about being late. They heard you were coming; they're waiting for you."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Blacksmith"
Copyright © 2019 Barbara Howe.
Excerpted by permission of IFWG Publishing International.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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