The joy of victory was marred somewhat by the conditions under which Felfet and her companions made their way down Garrison Mount and back to the town of Trefen. With prize in hand, Felfet mulled over the meaning of the giant’s runes on the strange sword they had retrieved from the frigid crypt. The cost of retrieving the treasure had been their bags and sleeping matts, adding the cumbersome task of carrying their equipment down the mountain by hand. Pots and pans, what food they had left, and of course the process of fireproofing their clothing had left them stained and touched with the odd bitter scent of king’s thorn sap. Felfet had made the decision that they should press on through the night, while it was relatively cool, to get to Trefen as quickly as possible and resupply. This had proven unpopular with Mif, but they traveled on beneath the moonless sky all the same.
Around midday Felfet saw the first sign of Trefen, wooden posts worn away by time and partially grown over. Were it not for their regularity in height and spacing it would have been easy to mistake them for a part of the mountain forest, but they were the remnants of fields markers. In some forgotten time, the land around Trefen had been cultivated for farming. The only hint of it now were the decaying fence posts, and the sudden shift in the composition of the forest. Hardwoods disappeared in favor of straight towering pines with minimal undergrowth. It wasn’t long before the stream meandered up alongside the road, the old forked poles of heron wells standing in silent disuse.
As they walked on sections of the pine forest periodically transformed into fields of stumps, and the steady sound of axes in the distance added to the beat of their steps on the dirt path. When they reached an active timber site, Felfet stopped for a moment to watch the cutters at work.
“Do you think they’ll ever get to do anything else?” Lisle’s voice seemed off to Felfet and the magician realized she hadn’t heard her friend speak since they had left the crypt.
“I am certain they do not spend all of their time at work.”
“Are y’all comin’r what?” Mif was well ahead of them, gracelessly holding their traveling cookware. Lisle turned and walked past Felfet. Footsteps. Axe blows. The tops of the pines clattered against each other in the afternoon breeze, punctuated by pinecones dropping to the earth. It would storm later, Felfet decided, although she could not get a good view of the sky from the wooded path. The magician looked down at the rune covered blade in her hand, and then out at the cutters. Most were working on felled trees, reducing them to smaller sections that would be easier to haul in their wagons back down to Trefen. It was the work her father had done before moving to Melythis.
Lisle and Mif were well down the path at this point, and Felfet had to jog slightly to catch back up with them. Sections of the pine groves closer to the town were young trees, cleared and regrowing. Between the trees tiny figures darted about, sunlight and pinecone skirts—vaphen fey—they tended to the new growths ensuring that Vanoree’s natural cycles remained intact.
“Felfet Lyns!” the magician turned her eyes back to the road, Lisle and Mif had stopped and turned their attention to her as well. Ahead, and just off the side of the road on an old brick ruin left over from the days before the golden summer, sat a cheerful young man in a fine black hat.
“Herren!” Felfet picked up her pace and closed the last bit of distance, “I missed you when we came through the first time. How are you? How is Pirea?”
“I’m fine,” Herren grinned, and pointed at the space over Felfet left shoulder, “Pirea is Pirea.”
Herren’s patron had, at some point, materialized directly behind Felfet without her noticing. Tall and slim, draped in a cloak of green pine needles and crow feathers from which small pinecones continuously budded, dropped to the earth, unfolded into sunlight and twirled back into the in-between spaces of Feynoree. Pirea’s face, which was covered by the skull of some great bird, was uncomfortably close to Felfet’s and a limb and hand like a hawk’s talon emerged from beneath the cloak to point a claw at the sword.
“This is new.” Pirea’s voice was like wind and reminded Felfet of the fear she had felt for her classmate when he had first made his pact in the Colloquium’s auditorium, “Or, old perhaps.”
“You found something!” Herren jumped up from the brick ruin and walked over as Mif and Lisle approached—keeping a respectful distance away from Pirea. The bright eyes behind the bird skull shifted to them and the fey retracted into its cloak and inverted its stance so that it was facing the two. Lisle bowed slightly. Mif took a step backwards.
“I did,” Felfet began, then corrected herself, “we did. This is Lisle Connery, and Mifeal Crow, my associates. Lisle, Mif, this is Courtier Herren Convame and his patron, Pirea. Herren was in my Primary Class at the Colloquium but became a Courtier without having to go through Secondary. Quite exceptional.” She forced a smile.
“Well,” Herren shuffled his foot on the dirt path, “Pirea is a retainer to gran’s patron, so…”
“Greenhat…” Pirea had articulated themselves closer to Mif, skull mask angled curiously to the side. The thief was struggling between holding onto the traveling cookery and dropping everything to draw one of his daggers.
“Not a crow.” The fey judged after a moment, “Maybe. It has many shiny things. Plumage is lacking. Ill?”
“S’jus’a name, friend.” Mif grunted and shifted the gear to be more between himself and the bird skull. Pirea’s talon arm emerged from beneath their cloak and placed a single glossy black feather on the topmost pan.
“Everything is names. There was a name that came after summer. I cannot remember. Take it.”
“Pirea, let him be,” Herren snorted back a laugh, “what did you find, Felfet?”
“Fel, I’d really like to put all this stuff down and get into a set of clothing that doesn’t reek of bramble juice. If you wouldn’t mind. Mif’n me will go on ahead.”
“Oh.” Felfet thought for a moment, “That should be fine. Here.” She fished a small rectangular tile out of the band on the base of her hat. A smooth white piece of ceramic painted green and inlaid copper symbols, “Take my seal for the shopping.”
“Thanks.” Lisle shifted the gear that she was carrying into the crook of her elbow and took the seal.
“Of course, I will meet up with you later then.”
“Yeah.” Lisle bowed slightly to Herren, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Courtier Convame. Come on, Mif.”
Lisle and Mif walked on, leaving Felfet behind to talk to Herren and Pirea about the sword. Lisle didn’t wait for Mif to catch up with her, but he did anyway. The road slanted downward at the edge of a drop in the terrain. A relatively intact wall stood between the ruins in the woods and a large hunting lodge and a tall white mill. Sounds of a waterfall droned on behind the noises of town. Trefen was a collection of buildings, new and old. The older buildings were constructed of stone and brick, with red clay tile roofs which matched the ruins and the bridge. The newer buildings, including the market in the town center with its green covering, were newer. A larger collection of homes and buildings lay across the river and were newer still. Although, Lisle recalled from their first pass through, that the newest homes seemed to be the most poorly built. One more thing to dislike about the golden summer.
“Lis, com’on…” she heard Mif whine behind her.
“Sorry.” She stopped at the bottom of the hill next to a long stone building that she suspected was a granary, “Market’s just up ahead, and I think there was an inn.”
“Bags. Cloths. Beds.” Mif muttered, “The tail end’a this’as been’a bear.”
“We’re all just tired.” It was true that they were tired, but her irritation wasn’t just caused by exhaustion, and Lisle knew it. The adventure had turned out to be nothing more than a glorified hiking trip, and while she was glad that Fel had gotten what she came for, the magician’s obliviousness had cut rather deeply, “Just need a little time.”
“Aye, well.” Mif jerked his head toward the outdoor market, “Let’s go then.”
There was a mull of people around. Two buildings made up the market, a long stand covered in wooden planks under the shade of an old oak tree that had decorated the ground in acorns, and a large raised platform with green cloth coverings that could be rolled back. Foodstuffs, carrots and potatoes, plums and preserves, gourds and a variety of berries, were the predominant items for sale. Across from the markets Lisle saw an assortment of well managed gardens next to wooden houses and thought of Melythis and its brick streets and bronze waterways. There were gardens in the fountain city, but they didn’t grow anything you could eat.
“Excuse me,” Lisle caught the attention of one of the townsfolk, an older man with a shock of white running through his black hair, “who sales textiles?”
“Not from around here, eh?” the old man grinned, “That’s alright, passed the square there.” He pointed passed the green covered market, to a third stand that Lisle hadn’t noticed.
The stand had a wood plank covering, and brightly colored awnings. Lisle looked on with disappointment, bolts of dyed cotton. Patterned squares. Copper needles. Nothing there was a finished pattern.
“Can I help you?” a woman with a heavy braid leaned out of the window on the side of an elbow shaped building to Lisle’s left.
“I was hoping to buy a bag, and new cloths.”
“Mhm, mostly folks in Trefen just want straight fabric, you from the city?”
“We are.” Lisle motioned with her head for Mif to join her, he had been off staring at the posts holding up the large square market.
“Hold on,” the woman ducked back through the window and Lisle heard her shout, “Mams! Folks lookin’ for made patterns!” Lisle noticed she had been leaning on one leg, and shifted her weight, looking up at the swiftly gathering clouds overhead just before the woman with the braid reappeared in the window, “Come around to the front side of the workshop, pass by the tree, Mams’ll meet you there.”
“Thank you.” Lisle walked the length of the building, with Mif in tow, it was made of wooden slats but it was well built and the roof was shingled tile instead of pine thatch. It was part of a cluster of three buildings which she realized comprised a storehouse, workshop and residence, with a small yard between them, less worn by foot traffic than the common roads. This was probably Trefen’s only textile works, “Mif?”
Mif had sat down underneath the tree, the copper cookware in a pile next to him, eyes shut.
“Mif.” No movement whatsoever, he was either asleep or pretending to be asleep. Before Lisle could take any steps toward rousing her ward, a wide set matronly figure erupted from the door to the elbow-shaped workshop. She wore a heavy apron over her dress and the pockets were stuffed with bronze scissors and pins made of copper and tin. Dark eyes beneath a thick brow judged Lisle in a cursory glance before strong fingers curled into fists which sat reflexively on her sides.
“Can you pay for finish product?” there was no rudeness in the question, but Lisle got the distinct impression that the matron’s time was deeply valuable.
“I’ve got a Magician’s Seal.” Lisle said, producing the smooth ceramic rectangle. The matron took it, flipped it over, and examined it.
“Greenhat, eh?” she handed the seal back to Lisle, “Your master get you into such a state? I swear. Come on, we’ll get you sorted.”
Lisle followed the matron to the double doors of the storage building, which she pushed open.
“I appreciate it, and yes. We were looking for a crypt in the mountain.” A little bit of pride returned to Lisle’s voice as she spoke, “Found it as well, but things got’a little strange.”
“Magician’s work is always strange.” They entered the square building, and Lisle found herself surrounded by stacks of cotton bolts in all manner of colors, racks of dyes, and wooden chests of drawers so tall that they had ladders attached, “Imports, mostly, from the peninsula. Easier to ship sheet, you know, they don’t like to sell cotton in the raw. Some wool too, but you wouldn’t want that for clothing. Tell me what you’re looking for.”
“Um, we need at least two bags to carry out gear, three dresses.”
“Calico or muslin?”
“For your Magician, too?” the broad woman raised an eyebrow that seemed like a shifting mountain on her face.
“Um…” Fel’s dress had been muslin, and a finer weave at that, but the thought of her having to wear the heavier calico weave on the journey back to Melythis filled her with a childish and spiteful glee, “Yes. That’ll be fine.”
“Hm.” The matron scratched her chin, “Alright. Watching out for her finances, I see. Two canvas bags, and three calico dresses.” She climbed up the ladder, opening and shutting several drawers before coming back down with five neatly folded squares. Two in plain canvas, and one each in yellow, green, and blue. “You’re a bit on the tall and broad, the blue one should fit well enough. The other two are the same size, they can be brought up a bit. What’s your master’s build like?”
“Fel’s pretty average, I think. But everyone looks a bit short to me.” Lisle took the first canvas bag from the top of the pile of squares and put the emptied flask of Yokeman’s Tonic and what was left of their food in it. She sinched the bag shut with the draw string and placed it on the rug covered floor of the storeroom. A peel of thunder rumbled in the distance.
“Fair enough.” The matron produced from one of her apron pockets a rolled piece of vellum and a then box with a latch, “Seal please.” She took Felfet’s seal from Lisle, and rolled out the vellum which had about half a dozen seals stamped on it. Flipping open the box she pressed the ceramic seal down on the interior which contained a pad of cotton soaked in dye, then transferred it to the vellum. Five times she repeated this, creating the reverse image of the inlaid copper on Felfet’s seal—a heron design for the fountain city, with a magician’s hat, and a smaller axe and hearth. The matron wiped the excess dye on her apron, and handed the seal back to Lisle.
“We appreciate the business, come back whenever she drags you around here again.”
“I will.” Lisle smiled.
Thunder dispersed what was left of the crowd in the square as Lisle approached Mif and tossed the new dress and bag at him.
“Can’t believe she jus’let you have’er seal.” he grunted without opening his eyes, “We ought’a jus’leave with it.”
“Yeah, Mif, let’s just wander around Vanoree impersonating a magician.” Lisle scoffed, “That’ll work out real well. You gotta think long term, friend.”
“Yeah, I know.” he sat up and started stuffing the cookware in the bag, “S’a weakness a’mine.”
“Really?” she laughed, “Mifeal is short sighted, who ever would’ve guessed?”
“Hey, hey, which’a the two’ov us’as jammed their hand into’a vat of magic juice, eh?”
“Glory is glory, right?” Lisle responded halfheartedly, and flexed her hand, remembering how the cloth wrappings had shattered on the floor of the crypt, “It turned out alright.”
“Yeah, well…we’re gonna turn out soaked again.” He finished stuffing the bag and hauled himself off the ground, “Let’s go find the inn.” A fat drop of rain landed squarely on Lisle shoulder, causing her skin to prickle at the chill. She looked up at the gathering clouds.
“Short term’s important too, I s’pose.”
“Really? Solid water?” Felfet enjoyed Herren’s attentive awe at the story of the giant’s crypt and the retrieval of the grey-bright sword. He was her junior by some number of years, and his wonderment was a balm to the wounds inflicted on her pride by his black hat and the sing-song rustle of Pirea’s movement behind them, “What were its properties?”
“Crystalline, transparent, extremely low temperature and friction. Some corporeal process converted it back into water at higher temperatures.”
“Like metal in a crucible…”
“My thoughts exactly!”
“There was something before. Molten gold into…into…wildflowers. Run off. Flood.” Pirea made a noise that Felfet could not understand, but seemed to her like speech of some kind, “Maybe.” they shook their pine-needle covered form as if casting off a robe, and Felfet thought she felt a chill.
“Don’t worry, Pirea.” Herren said, “It’ll come.”
“I did not realize that the fey could be so uncertain.” they rounded the bend at the bottom of the ridge that hugged Trefen’s northern border. The hum of the crowd in the market square ahead and the flames of a great kiln to their left were temporarily subdued by distant thunder.
“Pirea is just a little out of touch,” Herren shrugged, “it’s been one hundred and twenty years since the beginning of the Golden Summer. Some of the fey are parts of cycles that just don’t exist anymore.”
“I had not considered that.” Felfet pushed her hat up a bit, it had sunk down on her head and the band had left a line of sweat and discomfort across her brow, “Do you think Aunt Mureal is in her shop?”
“Probably, the kiln sage is almost always around if the kiln is hot.” Felfet had already started walking toward the kiln and the shop on the edge on the little creek before Herren had finished talking. He caught up to her as the clouds above thundered again. They were growing darker to the east, conjured up from Melythis no doubt. The great cloud barrier of the Golden Summer that surrounded and protected Vanoree from the unsaved lands beyond was entirely isolated. Like the sun and the moon and the trees, the storms were controlled by the courtiers and their patrons.
Everything in harmony.
As she walked past the kiln a wave of heat enveloped her, drier and more intense than the ambient air of the pre-storm day. It reminded her of walking in front of the brick stove at her parent’s home in Melythis, on mornings when her mother was baking bread. They would sit around the big pine table—probably made from wood harvested here in Trefen, or else in the highlands to the south, and grown from one of Pirea’s pinecone servants—and eat soft bread with blackberry jam. If it was a day of rest her father would sit on the bricks by the stove and tell stories about Trefen and the mountains where he grew up. Mureal, who was often called the kiln sage, was his aunt’s mother. A Corporeal Magician, trained at the Colloquium, and specializing in metals, glass, and ceramics. She had visited Felfet and her family in Melythis once, when Felfet was accepted into the Colloquium. Admission required a letter of recommendation from a standing member, and her father had arranged for Mureal to provide one since neither he nor Felfet’s mother were magicians.
That had been twelve years ago. Felfet remembered the smoke from Mureal’s pipe swirling around the room and filling it with the thick yellow scent of tobacco. The flick and switch of the lead writer’s stylus on the vellum—the first time that she had ever seen anybody actually write and not just stamping their personal seal. Back then, just that had seemed like magic.
The kiln and shop sat in the crook of a cliff, by the short waterfall. They were of the older brick and tile construction, and had original served as the smithy for the fortress town back when such things were needed. Mureal ran her shop from the ground floor of the old storehouse and lived on the second story. A wooden sign outside showed the mage’s hat over the runic symbols for glass and bronze, as well as a crow—Trefen’s crest—and a rooster—Mureal’s family seal.
While Felfet was examining the sign, the door erupted open and fell partially off its hinges by a switch thin woman with a ceramic pipe planted in the side of her mouth and a sack of sand in her arms that was nearly as wide as her own torso and was spilling little piles here and there. She seemed to be talking to herself, her words cut through clenched teeth holding the wooden bite of the pipe.
“Nevermind that, I’ll fix it later, now…oh!” the sack hit the ground with a punctuated thud and she shuffle-hopped over to Felfet and took the younger magician up in an enormous hug. Felfet gagged on the smoke but tried not to show it.
“Hello, Aunt Mureal.”
“Look at’chyou, Fel! Safren’s boy told me you’d been through round a day or so ago, but I was off south in Three Forks.” She took a step back and ran a time worn hand across the rim of Felfet’s hat, her smile was beaming in spite of her ruined teeth, “You must be so proud.”
“I am,” Felfet said, letting the praise settle, “and I will be more so once I become a courtier.”
“Ah. So, I see.” Mureal inhaled deeply from the pipe, hard enough that Felfet heard the crackle in the bowl, “you have some competition, eh, younger Convame?”
“It’s not really like that,” Herren stepped up, rubbing the back of his head nervously, “Vanoree can always use more courtiers. There’s plenty to manage inside the Golden Summer.”
“Manage.” Pirea echoed as one of their pinecone fey tumbled from underneath a broad black feather and landed on the ground with a short bounce, “Maybe. Too much. Hello, kiln sage.”
“Hello, Pirea.” Mureal let out a long slow stream of smoke and held the bright gaze of the fey behind its bird-skull mask, “You’ve brought something strange, Fel. The old pine spirit wouldn’t be hanging around in Vanoree if you hadn’t.”
“I have.” Felfet stopped herself from bouncing in place, “I went to the giant’s crypt that dad found when he lived here.”
“Did you now.” Mureal looked up at the sky as the first fat drops of rain hit the roof of the kiln with the sizzle of steam, her words had similarly transformed from the doting of family to the measured consideration of a master magician, “Well, let’s go inside and have a look. Dinner’s on, you come too my dear courtier.”
“Oh, ah, okay. Yes, ma’am.”
“I hope that you can help me determining the last few runes.” Felfet gripped the sword at her side, “I worked out many of them on the way down, but there are a few I am unfamiliar with. Metals aren’t really my area of expertise.”
“You studied tonics, right?” Herren asked as they stepped into the workshop.
“Yes, that was my advanced course.” The building smelled like sand and charcoal, sawdust, and faintly of butter and tea coming from the second floor. Mureal’s workshop was laid out with raw materials and her cold work—the hot works were all outside by the kiln—next to a broad wooden bench. A dozen and a half partial projects lay around the shop, mostly mining and lumber equipment, and glass bottles. There were a few more intricate pieces as well, decorative glass, and combinations of metal and glass. Felfet had heard rumors that some corporeal magicians had worked out how to enhance sight with such devices, but those formulas—if they existed—were well guarded secrets.
Mureal cleared off a section of the bench and sprig of a new pine branch grew from the table. The old magician leveled a glare at Pirea.
“You can leave my workspace alone, or you can wait outside.” She snapped the twig in her fist, and sighed, “More sanding, just what I needed.”
“Much death in this place, as always. I will wait. Watching.”
“Don’t worry, Pirea, I’ll let you know what happens.” Herren placed a hand on his patron’s pine needle cloak.
“Know what happens.” Pirea seemed to melt into the wood frame around the shop door, “Maybe.”
“Daft old bird.” Mureal shook her head and took a frustrated hit of her pipe, “Safren’s never made so much of a fuss. Acorns are less intrusive than pinecones, I suppose.”
“Gran’s patron just handles the Golden Summer better.” Herren shrugged, “Pirea is just Pirea, they’re fine once you get used to them.”
“Known a lot of fey in my lifetime, young courtier, ephen and even some of the great elphen. Yours is odd, to put it politely.” The old magician stuffed a new load of tobacco into her pipe and fished a lead rod from her pocket to work the pack down until it ignited from the smolder, “S’not what we’re here to discuss though. Alright, Fel, show me what you found.”
“Here.” Felfet grinned and placed the long grey-bright blade on the table, its broad face etched with ancient runes, “I have worked out most of these. I know that the formula is for the material that the blade is made of, and that it requires something called bloodrock.”
“I know that,” Herren nodded, “it turns up in the mines sometimes, to the north. The workers complain about it breaking their tools. It runs in red streaks when its wet for long enough.”
“These last ones are beyond me though,” Felfet continued, “something about heating and folding.”
“Mhm.” Mureal stared at the blade thoughtfully, “Useless.”
“Aunt Mureal?” Felfet’s heart jumped into her throat, “What do you mean, useless?”
“This formula is useless,” the old magician exhaled smoke, “or my eyes are going. You would need a sustained fire nearly twice as hot as a bronze pile to render bloodrock. Mixed with charcoal dust. Heated, cooled, folded, beat, reheated…no one could do this.”
“The giants did…” Felfet said quietly, “There must be a way.”
“High Courtier Constance could start a fire that hot, I’m sure of it!”
“She drives the sun through the sky, it wouldn’t be an issue for her at all. You’re right!” Felfet’s excitement was momentarily hampered by a thunderclap that shook the town, and the low static of cascading rain that followed.
“Felfet Lyns, promise me that you will not take this formula to the Summer Court.”
“Hear me, Fel,” Mureal’s face was illuminated by the embers in her pipe, “Mateo’s Crypt was left alone in the mountains for a reason. You saw it, didn’t you? The starlight spear in the serpent’s skull?”
“Yes…” Felfet gripped the hilt of the sword and took it off the table slowly.
“What’s she talking about, Felfet?”
“If the Bronze King wanted us to have this formula, don’t you think he would’ve taken it himself? Or had Constance or the Summer Queen retrieve it? Don’t you think…”
“It was submerged in miasma,” Felfet shook her head, “they just missed it, I’m sure. It’s just a formula. Aunt Mureal, please…I don’t understand.”
“Does it look like a sword made for a giant’s hand, Fel?” Mureal rounded the table and the inside of the shop was illuminated in the blue of a lightning flash, “Think. The door was open, wasn’t it?”
“Someone…you put it there?”
“What’s going on, kiln sage.” Herren took a step toward Mureal.
“No, wait, I just need a moment…” Felfet’s mind was working over all the facts, but she wouldn’t be able to finish the thought. In the next blue flash of light, Pirea had rematerialized behind her aunt, their amber eyes glowing behind skeletal sockets as the scent of pine sap and sweat filled the room, and somehow—over the noise of the storm—Felfet thought she heard cicadas singing.
Miiiin miin miin miin miin…
“The Summer Queen remembers what the old-new is. Steel. Forbidden.”