1: The Apothecary
It was a beautiful morning aside from the red in Sam’s eyes, which was how most mornings were. They say pain dulls with time, but for him every day was another twist of the blade.
He noticed a gap in one of the rows of salves that lined the wall of his shop. “Minsh, can you mix some more bottles of S-2? Could be a stormy fall, and we’re going to need a full stock of sleeping salves.”
She walked from the storeroom, studying the wall with round, intelligent eyes. “And T-1?” she said, pointing to something well out of sight.
He squatted, hands on his knees for support, and winced at the pain he knew would shoot down his legs if he bent too far. There was a gap in the bottom shelf. “Ben or Len must have sold those when I was in the storeroom.”
“Getting blind in your old age, huh?” She grinned, exposing white but slightly crooked front teeth. “Make sure you pay when you grab a pair of spectacles.”
Sam’s lower back screamed as he stood. “This is my shop and I’ll not pay for whatever I damn-well please.”
“I’d expect better from the proprietor of such a well-respected establishment,” Minsh said.
“But would you expect any better from your mentor?”
“From a better mentor, no. But from you…” Her voice trailed off. The look she gave him reminded him of his daughter, as it often did. Bittersweet, the memories that flood back years later. His morning was already as stormy as he thought the fall might be.
He’d gotten good at forcing smiles over the years, and he forced one now. “It’s your job to learn from both my good and bad qualities. When you own your own shop, please feel free to pay for whatever merchandise you take. Pay double, in fact.”
Minsh started toward the mixing room behind the counter before turning. “Still apprentice, huh? It’s been almost five years.”
There was a long pause. Had it really been that long? “Yes, I suppose you’re right.” He looked back to the wall of salves, feigned interest in one on a higher shelf. “I’m sure I’ll think of something new to teach you one of these days.”
Her footsteps faded into the mixing room. “Okay, but I’m coming for you, old man!” she yelled from inside. “This shop will be mine before you know it, and you’ll be in a shallow grave out back!”
He couldn’t help but laugh. She wasn’t Samantha, but they would have been best friends. The laughter died as the storm set in.
Sam braced himself on the countertop. Memories of Adam and Maryanne flooded his thoughts along with Samantha. Minsh’s gentle ribbing during training and the small dimple on her cheek when she smiled were constant reminders of his daughter, or perhaps his memories had just faded so much over the years that the two looked more alike with each passing day. Minsh was also brilliant, just like Samantha, and the only thing keeping her from being a full-fledged apothecary was that he hadn’t explicitly given her the title. Call it fear of losing a symbolic tie to his past when she left to start her own shop. Call it holding someone else back with the weight of your own sadness. Call it cowardice at having run all the way to the edge of the kingdom in the first place.
He wiped a tear away from the countertop and looked at the mirror along the wall. His reflection was worn and broken. His hair was getting whiter. His jaw saggy under speckled stubble. The wrinkles on his dark face more pronounced. The muscles under his shirt still defined, thankfully, but slower than they used to be. His mind wasn’t slower, at least, which was either good or bad, depending on whether you thought an aging body was a cage or a haven.
Five years with Minsh in the shop—three or four with the twins Ben and Len—which meant he’d been in Boar’s Bluff for nearly twenty. Twenty years on the fringes of Cartifa. Twenty years with the Choppy Sea five-hundred feet below his favorite cliff. Twenty years where every day he considered throwing himself off to either join his family or leave their haunting memories behind.
Sam gazed over his shop just to distract himself. Large windows bathed the otherwise candlelit room in mid-morning sun. Salves, herbs, and mechanical medical devices lined the walls, with the most prominent displayed on several wooden tables in the center of the room. His sword hung above the front door, freshly undusted from the grotesque attacks of the past few weeks. The ruby-studded pommel felt dangerous but natural in his hands, more of both than anyone in town cared to know. More than he cared to admit.
The shop was really the only thing keeping him going. He watched every sunrise from the cliff overlooking the sea, wondering each morning if it was the day he would finally toss himself over. Yet an hour later he would unlock the door and get to work. Minsh would show up a little after him, her mere presence reminding him why he was in Boar’s Bluff in the first place, and Ben and Len would saunter in sometime around mid-morning with an excuse as to why they were late.
“Have you seen the twins this morning?” he yelled toward the mixing room.
Minsh poked her head around the doorframe. “Nope, not yet. A little late, even for them.”
She ducked back behind the door, whistling a tune to herself. Late indeed, but not unusual. He wondered what excuse they’d come up with.
The bell over the front door rang. Sam forced the memories behind his eyes, put on his grin, and greeted his first customer of the day.
“Nev!” he called to her.
Her boots clicked frantically and the smile lines in her face were grim. “Morning,” she said brusquely. “Do you have anything for grotesques?”
Her hands were shaking, and her shoulders hunched forward. “You mean for wounds?” he asked.
“I mean to keep them away.”
“I’m afraid not,” Sam said after a sigh. “If something like that exists, I don’t know how to make it.”
“Grotesques, eh?” Minsh said from the mixing room. “I’ll make some food for them. That usually scares things away.”
Sam glared at her. “What my apprentice meant to say is that we don’t have anything that will help.”
“I thought you’d say that. It’s just…”
“I know, it’s been tough lately,” Sam said, but if the past few weeks or months or hell, even years were anything to go by, words weren’t going to cut it. “Best you can do is just stay inside after dark.”
“But if everyone’s inside, they’ll just pick one of the houses.”
“I know, I know.” There wasn’t much to say. In truth, he’d had a tough time sleeping himself, and not just because of the usual reasons.
“Do you have anything to fight them off?” Nev asked.
Sam gestured toward the sword over the door. “I’m afraid that’s the best thing you’ll find.”
“Are there any salves to kill them faster?”
Sam barely had the heart to tell her. “Poison works slow on them, but you’d be long dead before it does anything.”
“How about a wordsmith?” she asked. “I heard they could enchant a weapon?”
“Seen any good wordsmiths around town?” Minsh asked from Sam’s shadow.
“Really, the best you can do is stay inside,” Sam said. “And if you see one, run.”
“What if I can’t run? What if—”
The door slammed open and a distraught man ran in, his face covered in mud and what looked like a spec of blood on his shirt.
“Sam! Sam! It’s Edward, he’s, he’s…”
“He’s what?” Sam demanded, one eyebrow raised, the grim lines in his face getting grimmer.
The man shook his head and was gone without another word, the door swinging in the wind behind him. Distant screams filtered in from outside.
“Minsh, stay here and take care of the store,” Sam said, reaching under the counter for his travel bag of salves. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
“Wait, no it’s dangerous!”
His skin crawled at the thought of what he knew was happening. “They need my help.” He ran to the door, yanked the sword down from its mantle, and glanced over his shoulder. “Trust me, I’ll be okay.”
Minsh screamed something, but he was already on the stone path in front of his shop, his sword in one hand and his bag of salves in the other. As always, the pommel was too comfortable. The blade too sharp. The tension in his muscles too natural. Even the pain was an afterthought. If Sam just wanted to be left in peace for the rest of his days, why did he always jump back in when trouble found him?
People were running from the town square, but there was still a small crowd around the fountain at its center. The town’s only church loomed behind. Its ornately decorated gray stone façade, archways, and four-pronged tower casted a great shadow over the throng, and its stained-glass windows portrayed majestic scenes of Thyres that contrasted against the terrified faces and cries of fear.
A deep growl met Sam’s ears as he pushed way through the crowd. A growl that was barely human. A growl that was dangerous. A growl that he recognized all too well.
A red-splattered man knelt over a body in a pool of blood near the fountain. On either side, the tips of their swords shaking and sweat glistening on pale hands, were Ben and Len.
“Edward,” Sam said, keeping the tremor from his voice as he laid the bag of salves by his feet. Ben and Len shot him glances, and the crowd hushed to a dead silence. “Edward, what have you done?”
Edward growled and turned. His shoulders were slumped, and his head tilted unnaturally so that Sam could barely see the yellow of his eyes. Blood dripped from his mouth and beard onto the stones beneath him. His white shirt may as well have been dyed red.
Whatever courage had kept the remaining crowd in place broke when Edward lumbered forward. “I always hated you, old man,” he growled over yelps of fear and frantic footsteps. His feet dragged behind him like sacks of heavy stones and sinister laughter escaped between every few words. “You’ve got these people convinced you’re harmless, but I can see what you really are.”
Edward’s arms, legs, and chest puffed until his clothes tore at the seams. His arms darkened with fur, his hands grew covered in reptilian scales, and his nails morphed into long, pointed claws. His tattered and bloody shirt fell beneath him, his pants next, his boots tearing last, exposing sharp talons.
The grotesque stood at least eight feet tall, torso and head covered in fur, arms and legs scaly and clawed. His yellow eyes glared over a catlike snout that exposed a forked tongue and two dagger-like fangs.
Ben and Len stumbled away as the beast stepped toward Sam. He wanted to turn and run, but if he didn’t stand against a chimeral shapeshifter, who would?
The beast pounced. Claw met sword. Sam gave ground and then rolled under the next attack, hacking at one of its talons.
The beast shrieked and stumbled away, taking only a blood stump with it. Red-gray blood poured from its wound.
Their eyes were locked together as the beast lowered to its forelegs and charged.
Parry. Dodge. Parry. Dodge. Slowed with only three limbs, it was still stronger than a bull and deadlier than bear. It moaned, spat, shrieked, and Sam lost ground with every attack. The gray blood dripped from his sword and filled his nostrils with ash.
Sam’s foot hit the base of the fountain. He was out of practice, taking too long to finish the job and getting lost in his surroundings. The beast’s claw came down with thunderous force, and Sam just barely got his blade up in time to send the claw crashing through the fountain beside him.
Water sprayed up into the grotesque’s eyes, showered them both. Sam sliced a deep cut in the beast’s side and squirmed away.
The beast howled and flailed before squaring itself. Sam ran in, sword in both hands. The beast pounced awkwardly from its stump.
The impact sent them tumbling to the cobblestones. Sam knocked his head in the flurry but stayed atop the beast, his sword planted deep in its chest.
His strike wasn’t true. Call it old age. Call it being out of practice. Call it whatever you like, but the beast had a heart, and his sword missed it.
The grotesque shrieked and thrashed. Sam tried to yank the sword free, but it was wedged in between bone and flesh. He felt its claws moving in from both sides. It might succumb to its wounds, but he wouldn’t be around to see it.
There was a rush of air and the beast’s limbs fell helplessly to the cobblestones. Sam looked up to see Ben and Len standing before him, steel blades soaked in red-gray blood. Ben brought his sword down on the beast’s neck. The head rolled a few feet away.
Sam stumbled off its chest, coughing, forcing back the bile, and wiping the ashy fluid from his face. He collapsed after making it only a few steps. “You guys couldn’t have jumped in before?”
“Sorry, we just…” Len said.
Sam forced a laugh and spat the ashy coagulant from his mouth. “Don’t worry about it, boys.” He held out his hand and Ben pulled him to his feet. “I appreciate the help. Now get to work before I have to start docking pay.”
2: The Prodigy
With Ferro finally in view, Grayson stopped to rest for the first time all day. The ride from Wagonwheel had been longer than expected and he was sore from the journey. Still, a day’s goal is a day’s goal, and after a few more weeks of riding his body would be used to it, just like when you stopped noticing a lingering smell, in this case, that of horse manure.
The city looked grand as expected. Nestled at the base of Mt. Ferrous, the largest of the snowcapped, red-tinted Iron Mountains, its walls were silver and pristine. From his vantage he could see the central palace, which was comprised of half a dozen pointed towers that surrounded a golden dome at their center. The stained-glass windows of the structure shined with an intense glare in the afternoon sun.
The mountains gave the city a hardened backdrop that matched its reputation. The people of Ferro were vessels of iron enclosing hearts of ice. Exactly what you needed from soon-to-be-conquerors.
“Almost there,” Grayson said to his horse, “I hope you’re ready to breathe that rusty air.” He rubbed his hand along its white nose and fed it an apple before finding a rock to sit on.
The rock was flat and wide and speckled with red. “So rich with iron, even this far from the mountains.” He ran his hand along the stone. “I wonder if the water clogs their fountains?”
The stone gave him an idea, a gift he could bring for his meeting with the Ferrans. He stood and prodded its surfaces until he found a dense spot.
He concentrated on the metallic parts. “The ore inside the stone wants to be free. Its iron will condense in front of me.”
The rock shook softly and then violently, pieces on the edges splitting until shattering.
The horse neighed and backed a few steps away. “Relax, boy, you’ll be fine,” Grayson said, flashing the white horse a smile he figured it didn’t really understand. “I won’t hurt a friend of mine.” The horse lowered its head and nosed the ground, looking no less afraid, the sinewy muscles of its shoulders and hips tense.
The iron inside the rock had gathered in a clump, which floated in the air beneath Grayson’s hand. “Loose stones and extra weight are blown away. They’ll drink some fresh distilled water today.”
Dirt and sheets of stone that once made up the rock scattered beneath him while the clump hung in place.
Grayson motioned his hand in a circle toward the dirt below the clump of iron. “Now dig a hole just deep enough for it. A place where molten iron ore can sit.”
The ground rose in a cylinder of clay and loose sediment. He cast it aside with a flick of his wrist before motioning to his pack on the horse’s back.
“Charcoal and limestone go into the hole. Only the purest iron is the goal.”
The horse neighed when the bag of chalk Grayson carried for writing on his blackboard and a bit of the charcoal he used for filtering his water floated out of his pack. They both went into the hole with the condensed clump of iron. He’d buy more once he was done in Ferro.
“I don’t do a lot of smelting,” he said to the horse, “but I think I can remember it as I go.” The horse, for its part, looked at once both dumbfounded and in awe of his brilliance, or at least as much as a horse could for either.
Grayson turned back to the ore. “An intense heat will liquify the mass. I’m glad I did not sleep in smelting class.”
It was around this point that a normal wordsmith would get hit with the artist’s flu, a mix of nausea, exhaustion, and suffocation from carrying the weight of their words. A normal wordsmith had limits and could pass out or even die from it. Grayson had barely ever felt it.