It’s a little story I tell myself every time I come to a new town. My story is no more truthful than the stories of Evil Things in the Night that mothers tell their children to keep them from misbehaving, and no more effective.
My own grandmother told me of the Evil Things while I sat on her lap by the fire, with or without a roof depending on current circumstances, and from her lips the descriptions of the Evil Things sounded frightening indeed. Gloriously frightening, fascinating for their danger. In her tales, when the hero arrived it sounded like the party was over. I loved my grandmother. My mother, I think, ever the pragmatist, would have preferred dear Grams tell her stories in a more traditional form, but I caught her secretly smiling more than once. She was raised on the same stories, after all. You might even say that my mother married one of the Evil Things of the Night, but we shall speak no more of him.
As I trudged into town the air carried a feel of pent-up lightning, a tension waiting for release. Or perhaps that was just me. Ahead, beyond a handful of ramshackle hovels at the far end of the street, the mountain rose cold and hard, stunted trees clinging anywhere purchase could be found, shrouded in shifting clouds. A waterfall scarred its granite face, leaping down from above in a series of cascades with great energy, the sound of the rushing water a constant reminder that it was here before we were. Somewhere else, it might have been beautiful.
The street had been churned by heavy traffic and saturated with rain until it was a slow, muddy river, flowing with grim determination back the way I had come, as if even the mud knew something I didn’t. Somewhere nearby a shout was answered by the bray of a mule, while ahead of me two men in ragged clothes stood in the muck shouting at each other, their friends gathered under an awning nearby calling encouragement to both sides. That would be where the alcohol was. Even as I watched one of the pair took a hopeless swing at the other, and they both collapsed into the foul mud, either wrestling or drowning, to the cheers of the onlookers. I would not be one of the buffoons in the mud, I told myself. Another story.
To my right I passed a livery, the lower half built of stone and the upper half of green timber, freshly cut. The burned-out building next door told the rest of the story.
The ring of a blacksmith’s hammer pulled my attention to the other side of the street. The smithy was open on three sides, raised out of the muck on a stone floor. I recognized Mrkl hunched over his anvil, sweat streaking the soot on his face and somehow permeating his leather apron, and allowed myself a little smile. I paused to watch him work, his massive right arm striking the heated iron while his left hand turned the piece with a large pair of tongs. The wind shifted lazily and the acrid smell of the forge stung my nostrils.
The big man wanted nothing more than to do good work and to get paid for it, which meant he had devoted much of his life to avoiding military service. Behind him a stout boy worked the bellows, while another, skinnier kid moved efficiently, preparing the next piece in whatever it was Mrkl was making.
The world is vast almost beyond comprehension, yet the gruff blacksmith and I had crossed paths more than once before. One might be tempted to credit some mysterious hand pushing us mere mortals around for purposes beyond our comprehension, but perhaps a simpler explanation is that we both like to be in places where interaction with any sort of army is limited. I altered my course, delaying for a few more moments being warm, dry, and drunk. For Mrkl, I would do that.
He glanced up from his work as I stepped under the shelter of the smithy. He dismissed me, looked back down, then looked up again and grinned. “Martin,” he said. “You’re still alive.”
“I’m as surprised as you are.” I stepped forward and the big man dropped his tools and wrapped me in a hug that threatened to suffocate me. I don’t have many friends, and this is why. I freed myself, aware of the eyes of my traveling companions as they stood rooted in the muck outside the smithy. Mrkl seemed to think it was funny.
“The big guy out there,” I said. “I owe him a mail shirt. The best mail shirt.”
“You have money?”
“For the moment.”
“I was wondering if maybe you could hold some of it for me.”
He looked at me with eyes gone cold. “Let’s not do that again.”
I nodded, but there was a hot coal in my throat. “All right. But I’ll pay for the shirt now,” I managed to say.
“You want the top?”
“Of course,” I said.
Mrkl smiled. “Of course. Let’s get him in here, then.” The blacksmith waved to Bags and Kat, drawing them into the shelter of the smithy. I had walked away from them a quarter of an hour before. Now here we all were.
“This is Bags,” I said. “He needs a shirt.”
Mrkl looked from me to the big man and to Kat and back to me. Kat somehow managed to say nothing, though I could feel her words trying to escape out of every crevice of her being. “All right,” Mrkl said.
He smiled down at me. “Pay me when I’m done.”
“I’d rather pay you now.”
I tested the air, in and out. “Just let me pay.” My fists were clenching and unclenching without my direct guidance.
“No. I will do the work, and then you will pay me.”
Cornered. “Kat,” I said. “Katherine, I mean. Let me give you the money for Bags’ shirt. More than enough. Then you’ll be rid of me.”
She thought for a good long while. Somewhere out in the rain the battle between man and mule continued, with no clear winner but plenty of noise. The cheering up the street had faded; the entertainment was apparently over. “All right,” she said. “I’ll take your money.”
Carefully I pulled out five fat coins, far more than any mail shirt had ever cost, and I felt the lift in my heart as I did it. The true joy of money is not the having of it. True joy comes from spending it. At last I would be able to set the coins free. Those who keep their money locked up are cruel at best.
Kat took the gold and didn’t even look at them before she said, “I recognize this coinage. You just paid me with money you took from my own estate.”
Bags laughed. “Your own estate won’t mean much if we fail.”
Kat glared at him. “We will not fail.”
Whatever they may or may not be failing at, I wanted no part of. “You want to join me for a drink later?” I asked the blacksmith.
“You going to be sober?” he asked.
I hesitated and said, “probably not.”
“Then I’ll pass. Maybe we can do breakfast tomorrow if you’re up before noon.”
“I’ll get up early tomorrow.”
“We’ll see,” Mrkl said. “I gotta work now.” He turned from me and shoved the dull black piece of iron he was working back into the coals of the forge.
I didn’t let it show that he’d stung me. I know what I am; I don’t need to be reminded. Especially not by him. “See you tomorrow,” I said, and stepped back out into the rain, which was falling with renewed vigor. I didn’t put my hood back up; I just let the rain fall in my face.
“You all right?”
I looked back down to see Kat studying my face. “Never better,” I said. “If you will excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”