New Lessons

by John Burman

My name is Gordon Argentarge, Master Smith of Metamor Keep and … well OK that’s all but it still sounds like a good start.

It started like just about every other day had since I came to Metamor last summer. It was still cool out but the sun was shining and promised fall was not far in coming, though it did not yet reach into the valley. Crawling out from under the coarse sheets on my pallet, I glared up the board supported above me. Giving it a sharp kick I was rewarded for my efforts with a groan and the sound of someone rolling over.

Standing up and yawning, I said, “Get up, ya lazy lump, we’ve got work to do. The timber crews came in last night and I’ll be damned if they don’t have something that needs fixing or sharpening.”

All I got was a moan and my apprentice pulling his sheet tighter around his head. Glaring at the lump under the sheet I walked over to the end of the pallets and gave my ultimatum, “If you don’t get out of there yourself you will regret it.” Again another groan. Grabbing the backside of the board and keeping the front down I unceremoniously dumped the contents of the bed out onto the floor.

Clawing his way out from the tangled knot that had served as his haven in bed, my son glared at me. “What did ya do that for?”

“Cause you didn’t get up. Now git going, before I have to make you to do that too.”

Following my son cum apprentice into the smithy, I watched as he began to get things ready for the day, mentally noting his actions for future instruction. Thankfully he was a good student and I didn’t have to reprimand anything. Once he had piled the coal into the forge I ambled over to get the fires lit. Reaching in to activate the various runes on the inner walls I was careful to get them all just right. Now, just because I can work these spells, by no means am I a mage. If someone wanted to fry off all my fur with some fire spell there is next to nothing I could do about it ‘cept to run away screaming like a little girl. Yeah, I said fur. Of the curses here both Daniel and I were hit with the animal one. At one time after I changed Daniel told me I was a genet, not that that tells me much. He on the other hand, is, according to some traveling merchant, a corsac fox.

For those of you who, like me, get out about as much as a vampire in daylight, a genet looks a lot like a common cat but with a longer tail. My ears are somewhat larger than most of the cats I know and more rounded as well. I have large white patches under both eyes and black spots in rows down my back. My tail is stripped like a raccoons but like I said, much longer. It is, in fact, longer than I am tall – a great bother when trying to close a door.

Daniel however, looks like a fox with a coyote’s fur, only a little lighter.

Finishing the magic shtick, I got around to actually lighting the fire. This in itself is a kind of art as sometimes the fire takes a lot of coxing and at other times it decides to light all at once. More than once I’ve singed the hairs halfway up my arm and trust me, burning fur does not smell good. This time the coal and magic combined nicely and it did neither, lighting clean and evenly.

Kicking at my apprentice’s tail to open the shop I began to get the little things ready for the day, checking hammerheads, wiping the anvil, mindlessly working on nothing.

As I had expected the timber crews came by early and dropped off some axes and other lumber stuff I could make but not name, among them a few hooks and levers of one kind or another.

Working loose the wedge holding the handle into an axe head I tossed the blade in the forge and flipped some red embers around it.

“Daniel, git back on the bellows, and heat this.”

Bending his back over the lever, Daniel began to inflate the great bellows and fell into a rhythm that gave a steady flow of air to the fire. Listening to the gentle wheezing of the old leather, I pulled a hammerhead tongs from my belt and reached for the axe. Now if you don’t know much about metal work, a hammerhead tongs is shaped kind of like an ice tongs, the picks fitting into the handle eye of whatever you’re working with. Pulling the now mellow glowing head from the fires I began to roughly resharpen the blade by beating out a new edge.

Now, if you’ve ever watched a blacksmith work you know that not every stroke strikes the piece. Lots of folk will tell you about magic and superstitions around the smith and his hammers but it’s really just a matter of energy conservation. When you spend all day swinging a two pound hammer your arm will eventually get tired. To help with this problem every third stroke strikes flat on the anvil face. The hardened face of both the hammer and the anvil bounce the hammer back up much easier than the softened metal of the work piece.

Satisfied with the new edge I threw the cooling metal in the slack tub and was rewarded with a hiss and cloud of steam. Pulling the dull gray metal from the water, Daniel carried it over to the grindstone with me following close behind. Sitting at the wheel, he began to treadle the foot pedal, spinning the stone faster until he could begin to grind the edge.

Once Daniel had finished with his work at the wheel he handed me the head and went back to the bellows. Setting the axe on the anvil I reached down next to the forge and seized a large, heavy iron bar.

Placing the bar in the forge I waited while Daniel worked it almost white hot with the bellows. Taking the bar in a heavy tongs and the axe in another, I laid the bar across the back side of the head and watched. Now, the curse gave me some things that are very useful like sharp eyesight and reflexes like I had never dreamed of, unfortunately it also took its tolls too. I gained excellent hearing but that also means that now I can’t even hope to work without a cap over my ears, holding them folded back over my head and covered in cloth. I also lost my color vision. I have found though that if I concentrate as hard as I can that I can just start to see some colors.

Focusing, I watched the bright bar and the cool axe head where they touched. Slowly I could see some of the red in the bar and watched as a veritable rainbow of colors began to flow down the axe to the edge as the heat transferred from the bar. First a straw yellow, then bronze, next was a clear purple, and last a cold blue. Once the yellow had faded of the end off the point and been entirely replaced by bronze I quickly dunked the head in oil and began to move it beneath the surface in lazy circles. I wish I could keep the kind of concentration to see colors all the time but it gives me a terrible headache, so I let thoughts of color fade and with them watched the room return to gray. Drawing the ax back from the oil I could still see some of the different shading that was the colors. Taking a piece of cloth I began to polish the blade removing excess oil and slowly obliterating some of the color.

Thankfully I have an agreement with the carpenter’s guild that I can put handles back into axes and other sundry items without violating Guild laws so long as I give them a commission from all such acts. Also I can only return old handles to the socket, never a new one. Placing the completed ax against the wall I reached for the next one in line.

Before I had a chance to remove the wedge however, someone knocked on the front sill of the smithy. Now this in itself nothing unusual as customers are always coming around to talk, but this knock sounded different. It was more sure of itself and knew that it was important, the knocker did not want to have to wait and didn’t expect to be kept waiting. Heaving a sigh to myself I nodded to Daniel and dropped the ax back against the wall.

Hurrying forward, wagging his tail behind him, Daniel quickly inquired as to the unknown’s identity and purpose. Turning to me he said, “It’s a royal messenger and he says he has a message for you from the patrol master.”

Signaling Daniel back into the shop I made my way forward, not too quickly though. No sense giving the impression that I had nothing better to do than run to messengers. Besides, I’m a freeman, not some villein or serf who has to grovel and scrape everywhere he goes.

Stepping to the door, I beheld a coyote prancing from one foot to the next as if anxious to be off again, either that or he didn’t like the muddy slush that had formed in front of the door from the latest rain.

“Gordon Argentarge, I have a message for you from Patrol Master George.” He practically barked the message at me as he extended a sealed parchment.

Glancing at the paper, I looked back at the messenger without taking it. Ok, so freeman I may be but educated I ain’t.

“Right,” He said, coughing quietly to himself and withdrawing the envelope, opening it as he did. “Gordon Argentarge, Keep Smith, as a resident of the keep you are hereby required to perform occasional patrol duties in service to and defense of Metamor Keep. For your patrol you are to meet a squad at the main gate at midday prepared for a two day patrol. You will report to Elena. Patrol Master.”

“Patrol duties? Do I look like a soldier to you?”

“You came to the keep wearing armor and bearing weaponry.”

“That doesn’t mean I’m a soldier!”

“I just deliver the messages. Midday is in four hours.” And with that he left.

I watched the coyote until he rounded another corner before turning back into the shop. “Daniel, apparently I am to leave for patrol at midday. You are not to do anything in the smithy until I return. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” replied Daniel. His voice sounded a bit shaky, but then again the last smith was killed on patrol so he had just cause to be worried. Closing down the shop with a huff, I extinguished the forge and went into our living quarters.

The coyote had been right; I had come with armor and weaponry, but more because of the fact that they were mine than from excelling in their use. Looking at my arbalest I knew it would be useless for a patrol. It was slow to load and weighed a ton, fine for sitting behind a wall or some other defended position and picking targets but useless in the field where quick action would be necessary. Moving my eyes across the rack I donned my scale shirt, it was light, relatively speaking, and plenty flexible to match my lithe form. Extending below my waist and halfway to my elbows, each of the scales was a little shorter than my thumb, about twice as wide and was attached to the leather backing by three small riveted rings. Laying over each other like the thatch on a roof, they provided good protection from slashes and jabs but would do little for an upward stroke. That was fine by me, I had no intention of giving that kind of easy opening and I wasn’t going to be riding above my opponents either. Besides scale is cheaper to buy and maintain than mail, even if I did make it. Each of the scales was also slightly darkened so as not to be reflective. Shining armor was fine if you were going to be parading around on a noisy charger, but would blow your cover anywhere else.

Moving across the room I buckled on a wide belt, sliding a knife and some other sundry tools onto it as I put it on. As an after thought I also grabbed a long handled hammer with a back pick and slid it into place. Hey, I’m a blacksmith; it’s what I do. Turning around I smoothed the scales where they tucked behind the belt and reached for my sword.

Hanging on its own bandoleer, it rests over my back with the hilt extending over my shoulder. A full sized long sword, it’s the piece I made before coming to Metamor to attain the title of Master Smith. A near twin to it hangs on the wall; the sword I made to prove I was a master and stay at Metamor. I have yet to find a buyer for it and so it waits, no crest yet emblazoned on the pommel. My sword however bares the inlaid silver shield of my family at the intersection of the hilt and crosstrees. It is, needless to say, the most valuable thing I own.

Looking my self over I felt fairly ready for a patrol; I had my scale shirt, hammer, sword, and a pair of coarse homespun pants. Looking down at my paws I figured I had gone this long without shoes, why bother now. I’ve never used a helmet and besides, any I may have had certainly wouldn’t have accommodated a muzzle like mine. Strapping on a pair of leather bracers, I grabbed a light pack and threw in the necessities for an overnight stay.

Giving some last minute instructions to Daniel, I knelt down and looked him in the eyes, “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll be back before you know it and it’ll be business as usual.”

With that, I turned out of the shop and headed for the main gate. Even after living here for half a year, I still marvel at the diversity of Metamor, then again, that may just be because I don’t get out enough.

Arriving at the front gates, I looked around for someone who might be waiting to go on patrol. Scanning over the profusion of people moving in and out of the gates I noticed a small group waiting just outside the gates. Moving through the crowd I approached them and, feeling rather foolish, asked, “Are you with Elena?”

“Yes,” a hyena responded, looking me from head to paw, “and you would be Gordon.”

“I am.” I replied, still feeling like a complete fool.

“Good, we’ve been waiting for you. Now then, let’s get going, the more ground we can cover today the better, means less we have to do tomorrow.”

Numbly falling in behind her, I followed down the slope of the plateau Metamor sits on. There was still a good deal of mud piled alone the edges of the road but travelers had worn the main track down to the dirt and small rivulets of water ran down the edges seeking anywhere it could to puddle. Reaching the bottom, Elena turned into the forest on the right and began to move silently through the undergrowth; by comparison I sounded like a cavalry battalion on the move. This, no doubt, was the cause of several pointed looks from the other members of our group.

Actually looking at them for the first time I noticed several things I had previously missed. The smaller of the two, indeed the smallest of all present appeared to be a young girl no more than 14 years of age. She was, presumably, an age regressed keeper, and judging by the lack of visible weaponry besides a slender dirk, a spell slinger to boot. The other I had taken to be a catamount but now looking closer he had two distinguishing features that proved otherwise. The first was his tail, or lack there of, which was at most a few hands long. The other and much more definitive feature was his front teeth, extending nearly half a cubit in length past his lips; strapped to his hip was a long saber.

Stopping a short ways into the wood, Elena pulled a simple map from her tunic and explained the route we were going to be patrolling. I nodded my head and tried to make it look like I knew what she was talking about, but from the look she gave me I don’t think I was very successful. Shaking her head at what I can only assume was my pure stupidity, Elena just told me to follow what the others did, be silent and watch for anything unusual.

Unusual I figured must be a relative term coming from a hyena leading a genet, long toothed cat, and a child through the woods, all dressed for battle. Spreading her arms in an upside-down V, Elena began to move forward. The spell slinger fell a few paces behind us, while the cat began to move off to the left of our formation. However noting my utterly confused expression and lack of movement in any coherent direction he returned to my side and asked, “You haven’t done this before have ya?”

Glancing ahead to where Elena had dropped into a crouch and was looking back at us, I quietly said, “Never.”

“Ok, patrolling basics, the signal Elena just gave is the wedge, it means we are moving forward and we need to be ready on all sides; it also protects Lyra so she can throw out her nasty juju stuff. We take the flanks while Elena takes point, and we follow where she leads. If she holds up an open hand it means halt, a closed fist means freeze. In other words don’t even finish your last step. If she makes little circles over her head it’s get together.”

Trying to remember everything, I said, “Thanks” and began to move to the right.

“Hey, no problem, we cats need to stick together after all. By the by, call me Ivan.”

As the day progressed, I began to wish I still had sweat glands, even in the spring air. I eventually learned how to walk quietly through the woods too, well, quieter anyways. Most of the things Elena pointed out I had a feeling she would have let the rest of the team find on their own if not for me. It was like she was trying to teach me how to read the woods without actually showing it. That was fine by me, I needed all the help out here I could get. I’m a city boy and I know it.

At the end of the day as we made camp, I almost felt as though I could find my way back to the keep myself from what the others had taught me; almost. Curling up on my bedroll I tried to get some sleep as Elena took the first watch. Boy was I going to feel this little jaunt in the morning.

Some time in the night Lyra woke me for what I presumed was my turn for the watch, her face however showed something else entirely. Her shoulders were tense and her eyes were bright and watchful. Holding a finger to her lips she motioned for me to stay silent she explained she had heard noises and moved off to check them a short while ago. Turned out that about a dozen or more Lutins were camping less than twenty rods from our own site.

“Just one question,” I said as quietly as I could, “What’s a lutin?”

“Short, ugly, stupid, and green. Just kill them, they’re mean as heck and don’t like us terribly much and will do the same to you given the chance. We’re going to hit them just before first light so that we have most or hopefully all of them asleep,” was the curt reply I got; I like a woman who gets to the point.

“Hit them?” I asked; en guard, feel the sting of my rapier wit. Not.

“Yes, hit them, as in attack.”

“Shouldn’t we get reinforcements or something? I’m no expert, but four of us against over a dozen of them don’t sound like that good of odds to me.”

“Relax, we’ll take care of most of them before they know it, you’ll only need to get one or two.”

“Right…” So much for men protecting the women and children and all that other great chivalrous stuff.

Moving along behind Lyra I noticed Ivan and Elena were already waiting; I felt like the fool all over again. After covering what was probably most of the distance to their camp we crouched and waited. And waited. And then just for a change of pace we waited a little more.

It wasn’t until the first faint streaks of gray dawn painted the night sky that anyone moved again. Leaning down to my ear, Ivan whispered, “Lyra only has one good shot in her, so after that it’s up to us.” Nodding slightly I wondered exactly what a good shot was.

It turns out that Lyra’s one good shot was actually a bolt of lightning that practically vaporized three of the lutin’s makeshift tents and blew the rest across the clearing with a concussion that rolled through the valley.

Before the thunder had even died away Ivan and Elena were on the move into the clearing, unsheathing their weapons as they went. With a roar nearly as loud as the receding thunder, Ivan descended on the nearest rising knot of lutins, cutting great arcs through the air with his saber. Off to his left Elena was cutting a similar, if smaller, pattern with her sword.

I figured this was probably a good time to jump into the fray as I had yet to move and the lutins were still oblivious to me. Loosing my sword and running toward the encampment I made a sweep at the head of the first one I came to.

Now I did mention that I’m a smith and not a soldier right? Because that swing went clear over the green things head, sunk halfway through the trunk of a tree, and gained the immediate attention of every. Single. Lutin.

As I said earlier, the curse happened to give me reflexes that I could never have dreamed of; unfortunately I don’t know where they came from either. Being faced by half a dozen or so things with every intent to kill you when you don’t have a weapon is one of those times when reflexes kick in. So what did I do with my vast and unknowable powers? I raised my hackles and hissed. Yeah I know, it sounds stupid even to me, but like I said, reflexes.

It did however make them stop to think for a second, which I suppose served its purpose as Elena and Ivan used it to make a few more body parts fall off and I pulled the hammer from my belt. I’ve never checked exactly what the difference is, but I do know that lutin heads are considerably softer than iron and as such are also much squishier when hit. I may have terrible aim with a sword and be the world’s greatest klutz around more sophisticated stuff, but never get in the way of a smith with a hammer.

All in all I thought we cleaned up pretty good, I generally flailed around and hit whatever was in range; the others, however, were much more graceful and smooth, slicing in sweeping curves and arcs. Even Lyra came up from the back and wet her blade. The confrontation was over in a minute or two and we stood surveying the destruction we had wrought.

Wiping her sword on the grass, Elena walked over to me and with a look around said, “Not bad for a new boot. What I want to know is why there were Lutins this close to the keep, we’ll need to report this.”

Looking around at what had been the camp, with it’s charred cloth tents, mangled bodies and rivulets of blood, I nearly threw up right there. Normally I would invent some cock and bull story about manly control but the only reason I didn’t was because I hadn’t eaten yet. The smell of burning meat and hair, coupled with the coppery tang of blood and bowels putrefied the air and made it hard to breath. Walking on slightly weak knees over to the tree my sword was stuck in I attempted to wrench it free. Rather predictably it wouldn’t budge.

After watching me pull, push and otherwise strain against the tree’s grip for a few minutes, Ivan walked over, shooed me aside, and with one twist pulled the blade free. Now maybe it’s just me, but I think he was enjoying showing me up in every conceivable way, but that’s just me.

After our fight the walk back to the keep was uneventful, if not uncomfortable. Something about trekking through the woods, crouching still for who knows how long, and suddenly springing into action just doesn’t agree with my muscles. Elena poked a few leaves and sniffed this or that while I tried to keep from tripping on logs or other miscellaneous forest stuff. I was more interested in keeping upright than what the woods were saying at his point. For the most part we kept to a loose square formation and covered ground at a fair pace. It was sometime in mid afternoon when we got back to Metamor and we went our ways. Ivan offered a round at the Deaf Mule but Elena made an excuse for reporting in and Lyra simply declined, leaving just myself and the large cat. Seeing as I still hadn’t eaten yet I accepted the offer and we made our way toward the keep.

“You know, I think she likes you.” Ivan said as we settled around a table in the back of the Mule.

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

“Elena, of course. The whole way back she kept looking back at you like there was nothing else on her mind.”

“Sure she wasn’t just making sure I was still there and not lost in some corner of the woods?”

“Yeah, she was on to you all right. Just don’t let her know I told you so.” The cat said with a chuckle that sounded more like a growl.

Grabbing a pair of mazers from a serving girl, Ivan took a long pull while I sat over mine and pondered.

My name is Gordon Argentarge, Master Smith of Metamor Keep, Patrolman, and, just perhaps, taken.