July 17, 2014
The boat was a wide, flat barge for goods. A boat that one would see floating lazily down the river, sometimes assisted by canal teams when the river’s flow was timid and unconvinced of its own importance. This barge, however, did not move like that. The Boatmaster had a strange worksong he would hum and stomp out, sometimes joined in verse by Old Crow and, once she knew some of it, Cassie. This song was a Sacred Song, a song that propelled the ship quite quickly across the lake Moonfall, right into the gushing river and over the headwaters of the Moontear river.
Maria, however, was watching the horizon. She kept her eyes sharp for any of the black coats of the Hunters that had plagued her and Cassie since she first rescued the girl. By midday she was still watching while she ate a lunch prepared by Old Crow without prompting. The curious man sat next to her quietly and watched with her. After several minutes, his voice barely a whisper and in a conspiratorial, defensive tone, he asked, “What do we watch for, Defender of the People?”
Maria started to respond, but stopped with her mouth open. “Why the old title, Crow? There have not been Defenders upon the plains since before the Calamity.”
He shook his head slowly and made a soft clicking sound with his tongue. “Oh, the young. How quickly they forget. Do you know why they call me Old Crow?”
Cassie giggled, “It’s because you’re stooped and say silly things.”
He hissed at the child, not like a cat but like a disaffected raven chiding its hatchlings. “No, child, it is because I am old. So old that I remember a time before the herds, a time before the Scourge, a time before the Cull and before the Kingdoms became fiefdoms and the Kings became statues. A time when treachery was but a whispered fear and not a settled fact. I have watched the moon fall and the sun tower in puffy pride, I have seen the fears of those who battled with sharp steel and hallowed bone, I watched the sealing of the Damned, and I have watched the birth of the Blessed. I am old, child, older than bone and blood. Older than dirt and water.”
He turned back to Maria. “I use the title because it is true. You carry the Sigil, you carry the hallowed Bone, and you carry the mantle of Defender. Your mind and heart speak to you like a compass speaks to the traveler of what is right and what is just.”
Maria turned from vigil and narrowed her eyes. “Old Crow, I do think perhaps your memories, dreams, and sight cloud each other. No one carries the Bone and neither I nor my parents nor their parents have seen the Sigil. It has been lost forever to the fallen dirt of the Forgotten Places.”
Old Crow barked a short laugh. “Certainly, Marshal. Certainly. Yet one day you will be called upon to join your siblings in Bone and you shall know that I speak true. I always speak true, even when I am wrong.”
Maria shook her head slowly. “Yes, Old Crow. What I watch for are the dark riders that call themselves Hunters. They seek out the girl.”
He hissed again, this time through his teeth. In the way a man might when seeing that he miscounted those that had arrayed against him. “Ah, yes, yes. That makes sense. They would be following you. Well, her. They would be following the petulant one.”
Cassie kicked the deck. “Hey! I am not petulant. I am just trapped with those below my station!” With a huff she turned back to the Boatmaster and helped him again with the lyrics of his song. Maria, though, shifted so she could look upon Old Crow fully. “Would? What do you know of the Hunters, Old Crow?”
“Many things, child. Many things. I know that they do not ride of their own accord. I know that their eyes burn red and white without the color of free peoples and I know that they speak in shattered tones, like the drones and thralls of the Massani spirit stealers. And I know that they work for a very powerful one of the Damned who was not sealed in the ancient ways. They chase you because of it, that great dark spirit that seeks its final release.” He looked at Cassie and sighed. “Such an unwholesome creature to place such importance in, but these things never enjoyed a certain love of honesty and respect for those that would have to carry them through.”
Maria twisted her mouth around a few times, looking for the words to respond but being stymied by her confusion at every turn. “What do you mean, Crow?”
He laid back against the wood of the boat and stared at the sky. His hands above him, he traced some grand image, like unfurling a map. “Imagine with me, child, a time before the Calamity. Before the Scourge poured their fire over the Many Kingdoms and before time and claimed the Heroes of Legend. There are three castes of the Great Spirits, in the greatest of Lodges, the Lodge of the Gods.”
Maria nodded, “Yes, I know. The Blessed, the Cursed, and the Damned.”
He continued, as if she hadn’t said a thing. “Who filled what seats in the Great Feasthall of the Gods is never, was never, clear. Some seats were Damned and Cursed, or Blessed and Cursed. And one, one very hoary seat, Blessed and Damned.”
Maria grew skeptical. “None of the Damned sit in the Feasthall, Old Crow. Anyone who had grown in the gowns of the Speakers knows that, and you know that I did as I’m a Marshal.”
He looked at her from beneath his glasses, letting her see his milky-black eyes for the first time. Swirling like the night sky changing the seasons every moment without hesitation. “No, child, they know what the Lodge has told them, under a great curse from this of the Damned. The one Damned who has kept its seat regardless of its crimes because the Way has not been made known yet. Not even the Ancients knew how to bind it here, in the Great Plain, and we were sealed forever until the Way was made known. I am one of a handful that may see the Time-Without and the Time-Within to know it. Just as you know not to stare too long into any shard of topaz lest it steal your mind because you are not meant to see the Time-Without.”
“The time-with…what? The topaz curse is from the Damned who live there, Aslain the Crystal-Shaper. She’s trapped there and wants a way out through us, through the Cloth.”
He shook his head again, gazing upon her like a student that refuses to believe the words she just read in the book she refuses to open. “All things are so much more complicated than that, child. So much more complicated. What matters is that this Damned has set his sights on sealing the Way. He has done so many times before. So many times before. His sealing of the Way brought the Calamity and brought the great evils before. The dragon raids, the stone-peoples, even Drakir the Lifedrinker and Foldis Who’s Crime Is Forgotten were his doing.”
Maria rolled her eyes. “Half of those are just stories, Old Crow, and I have seen Drakir the Lifedrinker. It’s something every student of the Spire does at some point. He gave me tea and let me play with one of his shamblers.”
Old Crow chuckled. “He would, he was always a gentle soul. Despite what He would have him do. No, even old Drakir wouldn’t stand up to Him in his full glory, though. It’s why Drakir became the Lifedrinker. A fool’s quest to find the Way before, a fool’s quest perverted by glory and by necessity. None of these are stories, Maria Defender of the People. Once again it has come that the Way seeks to bind Him, to banish forever the Curse of Topaz, but he seeks to thwart it. He can’t pervert you, since you’re too damn stubborn and you carry the Bone and Sigil. He doesn’t need to, though, since Cassandra of the Blood and Wind is needed to Bind Him. He just needs to kill her at the right place so that her power doesn’t flow to another before the time passed.”
“Of the…Old Crow, you’re using weird titles again. I know what Bone and Sigil are, from the histories, but what in the name of the Blessed is Blood and Wind?” Maria began her search again, fingering the longarm stashed against the side of the boat, waiting for a Hunter to use it against.
“Blood and Wind. There were six forms to the Ancient’s ways, the power of the Six that first made the Kingdoms. The Six who were its first protectors. Shadow and Steel, Bone and Sigil, Blood and Wind, Light and Thought, Leather and Thunder, Word and Earth. The only that is still known to the histories is Bone and Sigil, since the Youngest who was the strongest could only instil her power into those who wore her Cloth if they carried her signs so that all could see. Cassie is the waking keeper of the Blood and Wind, though. The Second who left beyond the Topaz and who brought back with him the strength of What Should Be over What Is.”
“What do you mean, Old Crow?” Maria had lost interest in her task then. The boat was moving into the rapids, descending into the receiving levees of Old Bardisholm. No Hunter dared go there, as the Wallkeepers would shoot any down who were not known to them.
“To fix the world, child, you have to find the Way. Each of the Damned could only be bound by two of the Six working together. Half of the Binding was laid already by the Second and the Youngest, who were the clearest and most powerful of the Six once the First went mad with grief. She carries the Blood of the explorer and the Wind of the oceans. While you carry the power to enforce what is Right, only she may grant or deny freedom. Liberty. The virtues of doing without needing to ask or seek right and just ways first. She is the Explorer, in flesh, just as you are the Enforcer, in flesh. Just as I am the Truth given flesh, at least that is what the Stormcrow tells me.”
Maria chuckled. “Well far be it for me to go telling the Lady of Ravens what is and is not true. And if this is true, Old Crow, where will we find the Way you speak of?”
Old Crow tilted his head upward, as if listening to something snatched by the wind and brought right to his ears. “That is for you to do, young one. This is your quest, not mine. You just needed to know what quest you were on first.” With that he stood and gave the traditional greeting to the Wallkeepers, leapt into the air, and became a large, graceful blackbird in a flash without light or sound. Soon he was careening into the sky, held aloft by something only he knew.
“Quest?” Maria hadn’t thought of it that way. “I don’t want no damn quest with this girl, she’s bad enough without making her any more important.”
The Boatmaster’s song slowly dwindled as the levees rose and fell around the boat then, and the Wallkeepers lifted the great iron gate into Old Bardisholm. Orders were being shouted down at them from above in Carril, the language of the Bardisholm peoples. Each time it came down, the Boatmaster turned the ship this way and that, slowly creeping up on the network of docks and houses that made up Bardhisholm, the city on the edge of the world. Deep in its swampy jungle, safe from fire but not from darkness or the other things that grow there.
Maria sighed. Her diversion to help some poor, kidnapped girl would be going on much longer than she thought. Or wanted.
July 17, 2014
The Bargemaster’s room wasn’t as uncomfortable as Laceron had made it seem. There were real mattresses of down and straw sewn up in flax and cotton bondings. Cassie had fallen asleep the second she laid down on one, still in her boots and riding dress. Maria, though, spent the night awake. At first she watched Cassie’s breathing slow and become regular. The travel had sapped the poor girl’s strength and left her ragged and listless. Once the city had moved from the daylight habits of drunken foolery and insistent commercial enterprise to drunken foolery and insistent debauchery, Maria left the small room and went out to the dock on the edge of Moonfall Lake. She watched the lake’s surface, the gentle undulations of the upward flow of Nassal’s Spring pushing toward the gentle flow of the river Moontear.
The ritual was the same every time. First she took off her boots and placed them together at her right. Then came her belt, laid next to her boots with her guns pointing toward her. Then her vest, folded at her left with her whitemetal dagger exposed. Then, finally, her gunroll opened in front of her with each of her tools carefully placed and composed just as they were the very first time she used them. Three iron-tine brushes, three screwdrivers, three wool brushes, three long screw-blades, a small brass hammer, a measuring funnel, and a small unfolded forgepress. The very same kit she used to painstakingly build her Iron years ago.
The ritual was a practiced art in her hands at this point. First the iron came out of its holster, the rounds removed all at once with the oiled iron lever. With a practiced flick of her wrist she removed the heavy iron cylinder. She looked through the eye of each of the seven chambers then set it on the soft cloth of the roll before turning to the rest of the weapon. A screwdriver to remove front grip, carefully removed so as not to dislodge the mechanics within. Careful precision with practiced fingers plucked the snake gear and the small gearbox from the grip so that their teeth did not bend. Then the trigger levers, carefully set apart for cleaning, along with the oil actuator beneath the hammer assembly. Finally, the trigger assembly slid out with its complicated stack of leavers and the wire pulley that pulls the actuator lock open. With that, the cleaning could begin.
The brushes took patience so that she didn’t ruin the boring by cleaning out the soot pressed into the barrel by the rounds she fired. Flecks of the Scourge burned onto the metal, along with the stripes of lead from the bullets sent through the gun. The Iron was hardened using alchemist’s treatments but it was still soft enough to deform under the terrible pressure of the Scourgefire. First the hard brush with the short tines took the largest and boldest darkness from inside the gun, brushing off the burned in flakes the size of her smallest finger nails. Then the round brush to scour the bulk out, to find the gun beneath the wear. Then, finally, the smallest brush. Softened tines polished the inside and refined the grooves carefully cut in the barrel to be more accurate. Once that was done, she snatched a small bottle from her belt and oiled the wool brushes as she used them, each in turn, to clear the barest of left over residue, reapply the alchemical oils that kept the Iron strong and accurate, as well as lubricated and clean.
She examined her Iron again as she reassembled in. Slower than she had pulled it apart, reliving the moments she had originally forged the gun. When she slid the Iron back in its larger holster on her left, she plucked the smaller Westington from the right holster and cleaned it as well, without the ceremony or nostalgia of the first. It was only coming on midnight when she had finished and cleaned her hands, both guns oiled and replaced in her belt. As she replaced her riding gloves, the moon moved perfectly over the lake that shared its shape, illuminating the water as if the two were a matched pair just finding each other.
Maria smiled at the night breeze and unfolded her forgepress and start humming the soft tune that stoked the fires. She counted her rounds out, then removed the brass from the small bag on her belt and counted them as well. She set out half of them on the roll in front of her and polished them as well with the oiled wool brushes. From the same bag the brass was in, she pulled out a block of lead, careful to keep it on her gloves, and set it on a melting pan above the forgepress’s flame and slid in a mold for her Iron. She still had plenty of rounds for the Westington left. As the metal heated, she took an alchemical flask from her pack and carefully filled the loading pan in the forgepress with enough firedust to load the rounds she needed.
The next several hours were spent with her humming and careful pressing of new rounds. As the molten lead dripped into the bullet mold, the alchemically sealed press poured a careful measure of firedust into the brass cartridges and sealed the container without the air needed to set them alight on their own. Each round took ten minutes on its own as care was needed not to destroy Maria and everything she owned by setting the powder alight all at once. The last round packed just as the sky began to open and the sun’s light threaded through the night’s darkness to bring the blue sky. Far before dawn, a morning that only the hunters and the hunted saw.
The hunters, the hunted, and apparently those who mastered the ferries and barges of the Moonfall and Moontear. Salusin the Boatmaster called out to her as she folded her forgepress again and rolled her gunroll together. She belted her pack together and put her belt back on as the boat tied off. “Aye, morning there Marshal. ‘Tis a fine day for our travel down the river.”
Maria smiled to the man. “It is. The morning smells sweet already and the sun has yet to show itself.”
“I hope you don’t mind my business, Marshal, but we’re to be takin’ another with us today. He’s a good man, a skindancer that is known to be a speaker of Those that Fly.”
Maria paused, her knife in its scabbard and her face relaxed into confusion. “A skindancer? Here? In the city of He That Lies With His Face? I thought they weren’t welcome on account of their affection for truth beyond fact and finance.”
“Aye, ’tis true they’re not commonly welcome but no one tells Old Crow where he may and may not go. So least as long as they don’t wish to upset his consort. The Black Wing doesn’t take kindly to those who even look askance at her wanderin’ truth teller. Let alone those that harass him.”
“Old Crow? As dangerous as The Lady of Ravens is I doubt she’s needed to protect him from what stories were told around the campfire when I was…instructed.”
The old boatsman chortled in a dark way as he came up the small dock, hand reaching out to the Marshal. “Aye, he’s a fair bit of a worry himself should you press him. Luckily all he does most times is speak in confounding riddles and procure good food and drink from that cloak he calls his wings.”
He came inside with Maria. The pair quietly made breakfast for everyone with the quiet precision of those who traveled often, and who valued the kitchen that comes with a room that does not constantly move and require everything inside to be packed and stored between meals. While the bacon and eggs were frying, while the Boatmaster flipped kettle cakes, Cassie rolled quietly out of bed and arranged herself. While Maria waited for the inevitable stream of complaints from the girl, Cassie responded instead with the one sound Maria had not heard from her – a subtle, small groan interspirsed with soft moans of oncoming fulfillment. “Is that breakfast? A real breakfast?”
Clearly the young lady was both impressed with her morning already and disappointed in how she had been fed thusfar.
“Si, miss. It is. Now get your dress on and get over here.” Maria returned to tending the bacon, expertly flipping it with just her travel knife while retrieving the thin metal plates left in the cupboards for just such an occasion.
“There will be another on our trip down the river, Cassie. Do not stare at him, and respect him even if he sounds mad. He is touched by his Host, and speaks in a confusing way.” She started to serve up the food onto the three plates, leaving some in the pan for the Boatsman to package. He knew how Old Crow liked his breakfast.
The girl sat with a thud onto one of the crude stools facing the open kitchen. “Who would want to travel with you, gunslinger?” The note of contempt for her, for anyone who spent as long in the dirt as she did, wasn’t hidden even with the Boatmaster there. Before Maria could snap at her again, though, the Boatmaster turned and dropped a small stack of kettle cakes on the girl’s plate. “Old Crow. And keep that tone to yourself unless you’d like a full inventory of how you’re failing the People of the Many Kingdoms with your inability to operate as a full human being and not a meager collection of urges, impulses, greed, and avarice.”
His tone, while strong, was not as powerful as the glare he gave the girl. He rudely dropped a ceramic decanter, obviously full of cassel syrup, on the preparation table. “Old Crow speaks a truth that cuts through to skin and bone much more readily than flame-licked iron or tempered whitemetal.”
Cassie turned her head to one side as she poured the syrup over everything on the plate, the rich smell of the sugars already filling the air. Much to Maria’s personal disgust – she couldn’t stand the sickly sweet tastes that city folk seemed to revel in. “Old Crow? He doesn’t sound like anyone dangerous, probably just one of the raindancers or the wind-speakers from the Wanderers.”
Maria wheeled then, taking her own place at the table. Her knife struck the wooden table point first and she glared at the girl, “I might kill you yet, Cassandra Hal Valistar, but Old Crow? He’ll make you shrink in yourself. He’ll make you doubt yourself and everything you ever thought. He’ll tell you that the wind blows to foil you and the earth will split open to swallow you and the sky turns its eyes away from you so not to look at you. Then he will laugh, a laugh without malice or frustration. A laugh that says that he finds joy in truth and fact, a laugh that says he is honestly amused because you, you are beneath his notice or anger. A laugh of pure and unadulterated focus on what matters and shows you how, given what he just told you, does not include you. Do not disrespect Old Crow.”
The Boatmaster chortled at this and sat with less drama next to the frayed Marshal. “She speaks the water’s truth and the fire’s fact, child. Best pay heed to-”
The door to the boathouse clattered loudly as a stooped man, a hand or two shorter than Maria, came in with aplomb but no ceremony. Perched on his head was a wide, flat black hat. The kind of hat that the Wanderers and the Herdmasters favored. Drapped around his shoulders, reaching all the way to the floor, was a cloak made of black, shining feathers. They still held their luster, as if still stuck to the crows and ravens they were from, rather than the hollow blackness of discarded feathers in flight. His face was hidden behind some kind of fine set of goggles, silvery arms twining around his ears to hold aloft two glittering black lenses. His smile was crooked, his teeth clean but arranged poorly. Like standing stones upon a field long since abandoned by those who set them. He moved with a clarity of movement that would be recognized by dancers as grace, and by fighters as caution and preperation. “Sorry to take from you the moment of your speech, dear master of the waterways, but I smelled upon the wind that a meal that was made with me in mind, and I am not one to be skipping promises made to me even when I am not around to hear them. Good people, it is a fine day for our travel, and my lover does whisper to me oh beautiful words to say that you are good people indeed. Where can I find that which shall silence my fast and greet the morning?”
Both the Boatmster and Maria nodded to the man as he came in. “Welcome, Old Crow.”
He grinned again, snatching the rolled up cakes offered by the Boatmaster. “A fine, fine welcome it is.”