Mud and Iron

Chapter 1, Part 1

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Whether he has a place to return to or not, whether he swears allegiance to a king or a nation or only to himself, whether he be a farmer or a smith or a professional mercenary, in the end every soldier fights for his home.

-General Perion Byrne, Lord Commander of the Concord Army

I don’t remember when exactly I heard the first rumors about the invasion. It must have been at least a few months before I joined Lord Carson’s militia, but it’s not as though there were no wars or rumors of war before the fae arrived, and in the mind of a young man of seventeen from Cantlay Town, they all blended together into a picture of a world in turmoil. Certainly a world more exciting than the one I lived in.

Atlin’s armies were finally pushing the Ingus clan back off of the headlands and back into the sea where they belonged, said a peddler with a cart of fine wovens. No, the Atlish were on the defensive, said a traveling cutler as he re-honed the teeth on our stonecutting chisels, they’d lost Middering and had been driven halfway to Wiltford by the Grardish invaders. Still others said they’d heard that it wasn’t Ingusslund where the Atlish were attacking, but Harrdslund; a Euphentine trader, taking tea with Master Vardon in the room we shared above the workshop, said he’d heard that Atlin had taken all of the land that the Harrds had stolen from Euphentis and that they weren’t stopping there, that they were laying siege to the border keep at Tericordus.

Vardon spat on the ground at that, and said, “Tericordus is a hole that only the dumbest sheep fall into. The Atlish are welcome to it.” He added a few choice words in Euphenti, and he and the trader had both laughed.

I remember chuckling along with them, but secretly imagining what it would be like if one of the Grardish tribes attacked Cantlay. I fantasized about how heroic I would be, taking up my masonry hammer in defense of the town, striking down greased-haired warriors and pirates with rotten teeth, winning the respect of the farmers and the kisses of the shoemaker’s daughter. I also remember Vardon slapping me on the back of the head and telling me to pay attention to our guest’s cup, before folding up a piece of yellowleaf to put in his gums.

A few weeks after that, just after the spring thaw began, I was tasked with replacing a few of the stones on the the lip of the well in the town square, stones that had cracked in the cold of winter. The broken stones had come off easily enough, but chipping the new ones down until they fit where the old ones had been was no small task, even after Master Vardon had cut them mostly to size back at the workshop. With luck, I grumbled to myself, I’d be able to finish before the frosts returned at the end of next fall and broke the rest of the damn things.

Kellan stood in the doorway of the inn, taking occasional bites from a bun studded with dried fruit. It was early in the day, and still cold outside, so we had the square more or less to ourselves. “I’m not saying it’s not vital and necessary, or that there’s anything wrong with the trade; being a mason is a noble endeavor, and I think that you get paid half what you’re worth.”

“You could tell your father that,” I said between mallet blows, ”the next time he tries to haggle us down on slates for the inn’s roof.”

“Ah,” Kellan said, “but that money would have to come from somewhere, wouldn’t it? And then how would I afford this?” He gestured to the bun, and took another bite, chewing loudly.

I brought the mallet down again, and shook my head. “You’d find some other way to convince Merey to ‘accidentally drop’ a biscuit or two, I’m sure.” Merey was Edmugh the baker’s daughter; she brought the cart around with the inn’s order for the day each morning, and she and Kellan had ‘an arrangement’ involving the transfer of half pennies and treats and the occasional kiss, or so Kellan claimed, earnestly sought and freely given by both parties but only when nobody was looking.

Kellan put the last of the bun in his mouth and gestured to me with both hands. He chewed for a moment and swallowed, then said, “But my point is, I’m not saying it’s bad to be a mason. I’m just saying, I’m glad I was born the son of an innkeeper, not the son of a stonecutter…”

I felt like I’d been punched in the chest. My gaze shot up to Kellan’s face, away from my work, and my mallet came down short, missing both my chisel and the block I was shaping, escaping my grip entirely as I swung it down. It smashed onto the curb around the well, just missing my toes, and rolled a good two paces out across the square.

Kellan jumped back, raising his hands. “Woah! Easy there, Col! It was just a joke, no offense meant!” He was still grinning, but he looked nervous.

I looked away and closed my eyes for a moment, setting down my chisel. I knew he honestly hadn’t meant anything by it. He was needling me, of course; the issue of my father had been a sore spot for me almost as long as we’d been friends. He just didn’t know how tender that wound still was for me, though, even now, after almost five years.

I looked back at Kellan and forced myself to smile a little. “It’s nothing, Kell. Just lost my grip is all. No worries.” I turned to bend down and retrieve the mallet, and grabbed a rock chip with my other hand. Standing, I winged the stone at him, maybe a little harder than I intended, and he ducked out of the way. “You are an ass, though,” I said, and stuck my tongue out at him.

“Ow!” He stood back up and pushed up his sleeves, his face a mask of faux-grim determination. “This course can only lead to war, you know.”

I raised my eyebrows at him, and stooped to pick up another stone.

From some distance behind me, I heard someone clear their throat.

I turned. Across the square, a thin, tall man wearing a full beard sat astride a massive roan horse with a short-cropped mane and docked tail. He wore a wide hat, and a tunic in Lord Carson’s colors, green and gold. He rode up to the well slowly, giving each of us a look before climbing down from his saddle.

He turned to me, and gestured with a gloved hand. “My horse will need water.”

I ducked my head to the man. “Of course, sir. Sorry sir.” I turned back toward the well and started drawing up the bucket.

The man frowned at me, and then walked over to Kellan. “I’ll require your assistance also.”

“Of course, sir,” Kellan said, sweeping his hand up to his chest and bending forward in a slight but formal bow, “I’ll be happy to provide whatever you need. Won’t you come in?”

“No.” The man said, “I’ll not be staying long. Go and gather the townsfolk. I have a message from his Lordship.”

Kellan shot me a look. “Right away, sir.” He jogged off, knocking on doors and calling at windows as he went.

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