Mud and Iron

Chapter 1 Part 2

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An hour later, most of town had assembled in the square, about six hundred people, and the messenger decided he’d waited long enough. He stepped up on the front step of the inn and addressed the town.

“People of Cantlay, I have come on behalf of Lord Carson and of Sir Hagan Henney, who serves as one of Lord Carson’s lieutenants. As you may have heard, war has broken out in Atlin and in those lands controlled by the Ingus clan. Now, that war has come to our shores. There have been attacks on Westharbor and on Whiteport, and we cannot believe they will stop there. King Dorey has declared that any enemy that would strike at our shores must be dealt with swiftly and with overwhelming force, and to that end has called upon all of his vassals to raise as large an army as they can, so that we might drive these aggressors from Tillish soil.”

The man paused, pulling a rolled parchment from the pouch at his belt. “All men in Cantlay Town and the surrounding area who are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five who are not otherwise employed by the King or one of his Peers are required to report for active duty as soldiers under the command of Sir Hagan Henney. They are to bring with them any supplies they might have that might serve them in that task. Soldiers will be paid a wage not less than two silver coin per day served, paid the day they are dismissed from service. Do this under my command. Signed, Lord Maddock Carson, Lord of the Duchy of Cantlay.” The man re-folded the missive, and exchanged it for another parchment and a stick of charcoal. “I would ask that any man to whom this missive applies step forward now to name yourself to me, and then to return to this place in the morning prepared to leave.”

The crowd began to disperse, back into the buildings around the square or into small groups. Most of the boys my age stood clustered in small groups, talking low and glancing at the messenger, but a few had already begun moving forward. I started to move forward as well, stepping around a group of farmers and farmers’ children headed back out to the fields, until I felt a hand at my arm. “Hold a moment, boy.”

I looked back. Master Vardon had come up behind me, and he gripped my shoulder in his weathered hand. I turned to face him. “I’m supposed to step forward. Lord Carson requests all men between sixteen and twenty-five. I’m seventeen this year.”

“I heard the man, boy.” Vardon pulled me back, out of the square and into the doorway of the shoemaker’s shop. “Just hold, and think for a moment. The King has plenty of soldiers, professional fighting men with experience and equipment both. Even during the deep raiding five years ago, when the Happs had Kintinvale Castle itself under siege, the King never drew deeper than his private armies and the Crown Knights. Why would he now need an army of civilian volunteers?”

“Volunteers?” I asked, “He said ‘all men’, that hardly sounds optional.”

Vardon scoffed. “You have a knack, boy, for confusing what was said and what you think you heard. ‘All men not employed by a Peer’ is what he said. Everyone in this town works for Lord Carson in one way or another. If they wanted everyone, they’d have said everyone. That last bit is a way to avoid trouble if you can’t or won’t join.” He frowned at me. “So again, why would the King or Lord Carson need boys like you?”

“What does it matter, Vardon?” I gently pulled Vardon’s hand away from my arm. “As a soldier I can make as much in a day as we make in a week of wall-mending and pen-building. I could serve for a month or two and when I got back I’d be able to buy you a new set of chisels and points, and rebuild the workshop, and have enough left over for us to live on all next winter.”

Vardon’s frown deepened, creasing his forehead with wrinkles. “You think it’s the lost money I’m worried about, boy?” He looked down at his feet.

“If not that, then what?” I asked. When he didn’t answer, I looked back toward the square. Most of the young men who’d remained in the square were lined up in front of the messenger. Kellan, toward the front of the line, looked over at me, raising his eyebrows.

“All I’ll say is that I have a…” Vardon looked to the side, then back at me. “Don’t think there’s one right word for it in Tillish. An ache in my elbows and teeth. A bad feeling about something that’s going to happen.”

“I can’t…!” I realized as a few in the line looked over that I’d raised my voice, and forced myself to be quieter. “With respect, Master, I can’t make decisions about my life based on a feeling in your elbows.”

Vardon was quiet for a moment. “I am not a fool, you know. I understand why you want to go.” He closed his eyes. “You’ve never wanted a second father, and I wouldn’t have been a good one if you had, but…”

I couldn’t help but take a step back, surprised. In the five years I’d worked with Master Vardon, he’d never even suggested that he enjoyed my company, let alone considered me anything other than just an apprentice. This was the closest thing to a sign of affection I’d ever seen him give toward anyone. I was speechless. “I… Master, I…”

He sniffed, and shook his head. “No, I understand. And I don’t blame you.” He patted me on the shoulder, and looked me in the eye. “You don’t need my permission. You’re as much a man now as I was when I left Euphentis. Whatever decision you need to make is yours.”

“It’s not just…” I struggled for a moment to find the words that went with what I was feeling. “Master Vardon, I need to leave. To leave this place. I’ve never been farther from Cantlay Town than Stony Hill, and there are old men in town who’ve never even been that far. I’ve heard stories about Westharbor and Whiteport and the capitol my whole life, and you yourself have told me of Euphentis and Atlin and the sea. If this is a chance, the chance I get to go and see these places and earn us both a little comfort along the way, I need to take it.”

The old stonecutter looked at me for a moment, and then sighed. He spoke in Euphenti, an old saying I’d heard him use many times. The Fates love a fool. Then, in Tillish, “Go on, then. Go.” He motioned me off with his hands.

I turned and walked a few steps, then stopped. “Thank you, Vardon.”

“Bah, don’t make an old man embarrass himself, boy. Go!” Vardon turned away from me, headed back down the street. “Meet me back at the shop when you’ve finished.”

I watched Vardon as he made his way down the road. I felt guilty, now, realized for the first time that I’d be leaving Vardon without my help, probably for a whole season, maybe as long as the whole year. And, of course, there was always the risk that I’d be killed, but that seemed… abstract, I guess. Or just not real, not in the same way that the idea of leaving town and seeing the world and getting away seemed real. Of course, now that we’d argued about it there was no way I could come back and face Vardon again without signing up.

I trotted up next to Kellan in line, and the boy behind him, a journeyman woodcarver named Gil, waved me in ahead of him. “Ah,” Kellan said, punching me on the shoulder, “so you do have some loyalty to your King and pride in your town after all. I was worried that after working for a Euphenti for years, you’d want to spend weeks arguing over whether war was even a real thing, conceptually, and then bring the whole thing to a vote or something.”

I shrugged. “You know far more about Euphentine philosophy than me, Kel, you’re the one who has all the time to read.” A pair of Farmer Leward’s sons, named Munder and Hamund I think, walked back down the line from the front and gave us a nod. Kellan and I nodded back, and then I prodded his shoulder with a finger. “I just figured if they’d let you in with skinny wings like these, they’d have to make me a knight right out of the gate.”

Kellan smirked at me. He looked toward the front of the line, and then raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Oh. Um…” He looked back at me, and said in a low tone, “Well, look who else is signing up.”

I looked up toward the front of the line. I saw a pair of broad shoulders and a head with close-cut black hair pop up at the front; I didn’t need to wait for him to turn around to know who it was. Spirits curse him. He finished with the messenger and walked back along the line.

Kellan nodded to him. “Oskar.”

He nodded back. “Kel. Colum.”

I made eye contact, briefly, but didn’t respond. Spirits curse me, while they’re at it. After an awkward moment, he continued on down the line.

When he was gone, Kellan gave me a look. “You and Vardon do work for Lord Carson, Col. You can still change your mind at this point. If you want to stay because he’s going.”

I shook my head. “No. It’s fine.” Even if it meant I’d not see him for months, I certainly wasn’t going to let him go off to war and come home a hero while I stayed home and hit rocks with hammers. “Someone has to keep you from impaling yourself on your sword, anyway.”

Kellan narrowed his eyes at me, usually the precursor to a bout of ill-considered wrestling, but then we reached the front of the line. As Kellan spoke with the messenger, I looked back over my shoulder, back down the street that lead toward my father’s smithy. The sun had just risen far enough in the sky to cast light on the cobbles, and I could just make out Oskar’s dark hair, half a head taller than the others who were still milling about. No, if he was going, there was no way I wasn’t going, too.

Kellan finished with the recruiter, and I stepped forward. He looked at me, examining my face. “Are you in good health?” I nodded, and he shook his head. “Yes or no, please. Are you in good health?”

“Yes.”

“Teeth in decent shape?”

“Yes.”

“You have a weapon? Any armor?”

“No, neither.” Except my belt knife, but that was hardly a weapon.

He made a mark on his parchment. “We can provide you with something. Do you read? Write?”

“Yes, to both.” Vardon had decided early in my training that, as I’d have to leave him notes from time to time and he wasn’t about to try to interpret my ‘atrocious pictures’, he was going to make me learn my letters. It had been a slow process and my lettering was still rough and uneven, but I’d learned, and now could read both Tillish and some Euphenti.

The messenger handed me the piece of thin charcoal he was holding and held the parchment out to me. “Show me. Write your name on the list next to the mark, both first and second.”

I took the parchment, unsure of what exactly I was going to write. Kellan had once claimed that down south in the capital it was popular to give children the same second names as their parents, at the time of their birth. It was a custom that hadn’t spread north to Cantlay, not yet anyway. Here, we didn’t get second names until we needed them, until we were adults. I was seventeen now, so when the King’s census-taker came around this year I’d be one of the people whose name would be added to the books, probably with some small amount of ceremony, but that hadn’t happened yet, and until it did I technically had no second name.

I scanned the list as fast as I could, trying to see what the others my age had done. Munder and Hamund had gone with ‘am Leward’, after their father’s name rather than his profession, while Kellan had chosen just to go by ‘ev Cantlay’. Most of the boys a year or two older than me had used their trade names: Bryce Haeward, Rewell Potter, Drewis Woodard.

I admit that I also went looking specifically for Oskar’s name, and my breath caught in my throat when I saw it.

Oskar Smith.

As though he were my father’s son. As though the forge was already his.

I swallowed, hard, keeping my face impassive. I touched the charcoal to the parchment, raised it again.

“There are others yet to sign, boy,” the messenger said, “be quick about it, for their sakes and mine.”

The ‘boy’ reminded me of Vardon. His words repeated themselves in my mind. You’ve never wanted a second father, and I wouldn’t have been a good one if you had, but…

I shook my head. “The Fates love a fool,” I said in Euphenti, and then gritted my teeth. Next to the mark, below Kellan’s wide script, I wrote my name.

Colum Mason.

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