Red Earth and a Song
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The main street bustled with activity and the thick, musty smell of powdery dirt raised from the passage of the burrow's rodents hung in the air. A bubbling mess of rodents of every size and shape pushed past in a swarm of sharp elbows, hard shoulders and brief apologies, each seeming to bear a different mode of dress and a different accent. The place was intensely alive, and even Orpek's tiredness and having a running litterling thwack head-first into his stomach and knock the wind out of him failed to lower his smile. He'd been alone on the briarpath too long. He had already traded the rolls of fine paper he had acquired some time ago to the very grateful scribe’s guild of the city-burrow of Redcliffe, named for the dark scarlet of the walls that hinted at the copper dug out deep beneath the burrow.

His pack lighter for what he had traded and the necessities for further wandering acquired (along with a few precious luxuries), Orpek was looking for a smith talented enough to trust with the upkeep of his nail. It had received a nasty dent in his last… misadventure and it needed care.

He had been told that, though the city ran thick with smithies and metalworkers and artisans of every kind, a smith of particular talent was some way along this main street. Though she usually did not take on impromptu repair jobs the stall-holder he had asked recommendation from had eyed the nail at his waist and nodded to himself, before saying that she would likely be eager to take on the opportunity to work on such a piece herself.

The sound of metal on metal peeped through the sound of the crowd bartering, chiding sheepish litterlings, talking over one another, hawking wares and arguing over the quality of vegetables. Orpek smiled to himself and turned his ears towards the sound. That would be her, most likely.

Soon enough he reached a stone arch set into the side of the main thoroughfare marked with a hanging wooden sign, the twine dirtied with soot and the smell of smoke wafting out from within. On the sign was a simple but neat symbol burned into the wood. A hammer, and a paw.

A small queue of three or four rodents led inside and Orpek joined it, scratching behind his ear and giving the brown-furred mouse in front of him a polite nod.

“She’s only taking urgent repairs at tha minute,” said the mouse. “Been contracted with making a few dozen picks fer the mine.” He tapped a sickle hanging at his waist, the end of the curved blade pulled at a right-angle. “Family heirloom,” he said. “Me dad would’a killed me fer bending it. You?”

“A similar story,” grunted Orpek vaguely.

“Mighty fierce weapon that is,” said the mouse. “You a, uh, soldier?”

“Wanderer,” grunted Orpek, much less vaguely. “Traveller. Fixer of wrongs, sometimes.”

“Eyight,” said the mouse, wrinkling his nose. “I were just asking, no need to get all huffy.”

“My apologies,” said Orpek, sighing. “You are a gatherer, if I guess right?”

“That’s me,” said the mouse, a little more cheerfully. “Summer’s been good to me this year. Almost did a mischief to me back with how many berries I’ve been carting ‘round.”

Orpek hazarded a further question. “What kind of berries?”

“Blackberries, gosberries… more blackberries… mainly blackberries right now. Fruiting season.”

“Right,” said Orpek. The conversation appeared to have run out of conversation and the rat was rather glad to listen to the sound of the anvil being worked.

But before his mind could wander off on the steps of the rhythm another sound joined it. Orpek’s ears pricked up as from beyond the arch a voice, deep and rough from lungs lined with smoke but steady and full of life, began to drift out from inside the forge. A smile split his upper lip as he listened, ears poised to catch every scrap of mundane sound.

“Hammer down to shape and tame
The copper from the earthen dark
And bend and break and make again
Steel scored with heathen's mark

Smelter’s hot and anvil’s hard
Bronze to melt for channel’s pour
Zinc and copper, measured tin
Pots and pits and molten ore

Casts to shape and tongs to grasp
Charcoal’s souls recall the sun
And sigh ‘though mourning summers past
As out the forge-mouth charred air comes

As hammer's down down to fold and turn
And twist and bend and stronger make,
So metal sings as I direct
And sing as metal's form I shape,

Picks in hand and swords on belts
Spears on backs and knifes to bare
Metal cold from forges hot
To rodents armed with smithies’ care.”

The hammer stopped beating. The sound of the market was very distant.

Orpek put the memory in the safe place in his mind and labelled it Redcliffe.

Then the voice coughed, breaking the silence. “Done,” she said. “Right, who wants something mended?”

From around the corner of the doorway a mouse appeared, grey fur frazzled by the heat and dark with soot on front, shoulders broad with muscle and paws thick with callouses. She pulled a pair of goggles off her eyes and held them dangling by the strap as she pulled a rag off a hook and scrubbed at her face, succeeding only in making her fur even wilder. Her whiskers were tied back behind her head with a wooden clasp, Orpek noticed. A copper spring pressed the two halves shut. A thing of her own creation, assumedly.

She moved down the line and give a cursory examination to each of the tools waiting to be mended. “Not too bad, not too bad… bit tricky but fixable…” she came to Orpek and stopped, looking up.

“Ehup,” the smith said cheerfully, if a little tiredly. “I don’t know you.”

“You have a fine voice for a smith,” said Orpek. “I’d say your talents were wasted but that clasp speaks otherwise.”

“Aw, thanks,” said the smith. “You know how to win me over, tha’s for sure. Flattery goes straight past my brain to my heart.” She held out a paw, retracted it, scrubbed it on her side, and then held it out again. Orpek shook it.

“Orpek,” he said.

“Mephin,” the smith said. “You a… what, a soldier?”

“I wander here and there,” said Orpek. “Carry things about. Sometimes smack a beetle with my nail.” He shrugged. “This and that and sore feet.”

“Well, I can guess why yer here,” Mephin said, leaning around Orpek a little to get a better view of his nail. “Good thing I’m ahead’a schedule, that’s a proper piece you got there. If I may…” she held her arms out.

Orpek nodded and drew the nail slowly, wincing as the bent segment passed through the beltloop. The smith eyed it with awe.

“Old Ones be damned,” she said as Orpek laid it in her arms. “That’s a big ol’ nail. You sure you just… carry things?”

“I would like to,” grunted Orpek.

Mephin shrugged and turned her attention towards the nail.

“Never seen metal worked like this,” she said, hefting it in her arms, eyes flicking rapidly over the weapon, taking in every dent and scratch as she turned it over. “Must have taken quite the hit to damage it.” She turned back to Orpek. “I’ll get this straight as an axle soon as-”

“No, no,” said Orpek hastily. “Just the one in the centre, closest to the handle. The bend at the tip, I would rather you leave it.”

“Sure,” said Mephin, “but.. why?”

The smith suddenly seemed very far away.


A fall.

A mistake.

A failure.

A betrayal.

The nail caked in mud and a red streak of his own blood at the bottom of a cold stone wall.

A pair of eyes looking down and the knowledge that the thing he had loved in them had died, slowly, quietly, without him noticing, and without the chance to say goodbye.

“Because some things cannot be undone,” he said.

He gritted his teeth against the wetness building in his eyes.

Mephin’s eyes flickered, unsure where to look and, Orpek thought, suddenly unsure whether to feel fear or pity.

He took the nail back from her. “Just the bend at the centre,” he said. He breathed out slowly. “My apologies,” he added. “Old scars and older regrets.”

“We all got those,” said Mephin softly. “Try not ta’ dig at those old cuts too much, friend.”

He nodded in understanding and took a seat on the ground as Mephin attended to the other customers, cradling the nail in his arms.

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