Ironmaster Preview: Scratch Iron

Posted on Wednesday, July 15th, 2015 at 10:40

To celebrate “Ironmaster & Other Tales” becoming available on a variety of ebook platforms I thought I might show a few preview extracts here.

Scratch Iron Illustration


A Liminal Prologue in Dark Færy Tale

There are those who are attracted to, and have power over liminal things, things that are neither one thing nor the other, but something in-between. Their stories begin, ‘Once upon a time’, and this is that time.

The sun is setting and twilight toys with the world. Neither day, nor night, dusk (or the gloaming as the locals call it) exists between the two, liminal.

Borderlands are strange spaces. They are neither one thing, nor the other. Neither in, nor out, they exist between, thresholds, the start of one thing, and the end of something else.

Pengwernshire is that kind of place.

It is a border county, Merry-Olde-England ends here, and Ancient-Cymru begins, or vice-versa. Pengwernshire is north of southwest England, but south of the northwest. It is the mid-borderland… the middle of the threshold.
A county of dichotomies and paradoxes, today it is a rural county, bucolic and idyllic, although in yesteryear it was the birthplace of industry.

Mines, furnaces, and factories arose across the rolling fields, forests, hills, dales, and along the rivers. Canals were cut, railways laid, and families grew rich. People came from all across both countries, England and Cymru to work and learn there, some got stuck, their children were born neither wholly local nor immigrant, trapped by future-shock and tradition.

It gets worse as we zoom in, North Pengwernshire, is separated from South Pengwernshire by a river, and a gorge.
The Duke of Pengwern rules most of the North, his family, the Sylvas, descend from Norman invaders and have owned the land for nine hundred years, but their influence extends just beyond the river, where they own the small post-industrial town of Briarsley.

Older families rule most of the South, families that have more Brythonic ties, predating the Normans, but that have less political power. One such family owns the village of Twisthall, pronounced ‘Twizzle’ by those that live there.
Nothing but a brook-dale, a small, steep-sided, valley with a trickling stream at its bottom, separates Twisthall from Briarsley.

Along that border, you’ll find miners and foresters living as neighbours. Miners live above the ground, but work beneath it; foresters are similar; they live outside the forest, but work deep within. Both are skilled jobs essential to the war effort and that has kept them from being swept to their deaths in the industrialised Great War that rages across Europa, Africa and Asia, but they are poor commoners, and both appear in faery-tales as often as witches or kings.

Bordering the houses, you will find woods, remnants of ancient forests that once covered the whole island, that are split into wildwoods and forester-cultivated coppices, they cling to the edge of the gorge. It is, perhaps, the most liminal place on the British Isles. It is called Twisthall Edge.

Mists rise from river, and root, to haunt Twisthall Edge.

Under the cover of the rising dark and the twisting threads of mists, night-brethren creep and stalk from their homes. Miners and foresters, too poor to survive, too rich for the poor house, they cling to existence.
Liminal people, making their way, in a liminal time, into the liminal wood. There they hunker down in waist-deep pits, neither above the ground, nor below. They tear the earth apart, poaching the black rocks from beneath the trees. Scratch-miners armed with garden tools collecting coal, it is a crime, of course.

Before the war, they would not have risked this, but the war has thinned the nobility as much as the commoners and those nobles who remain think themselves wise to ignore a little stolen coal, and a few poached game animals, without having to raise wages. This lack of threat makes the scratch-miners believe that it is almost not a crime.
Tonight there is another amongst them.

He is neither noble nor poor, common, but uncommon. Tonight he is just like these other men, except he knows that his crimes would not be ignored.

He comes rarely, but tonight is one of his nights, the moon’s dark drawing him out. The new moon is not one moon, or the other, but tonight’s dark sky sat within another transitional time, and had he known, had he read the papers, or heard the wireless, and seen that other threshold approaching, he would have stayed home.

He slips by the coal-miners, going deeper than most of these night-brethren. He isn’t just after coal. He finds an outcropping of ancient ironstone, and clips the ore from the ground with a pickaxe. He drags the reddish rocks across to his forge, which is little more than a carefully shaped hole.

He scrapes together coal and ironstone, and begins his crime.

He pulls out his bucket bellows and lights the sticks and coals after building the fire and stacking the fuel in a particular, fastidious manner.

He listens to the soft scraping noises of the other scratch-miners working in the darkness. Then, once satisfied they are not going to see him breaking the Black-law, he begins to work his bellows.

The bellows whoop and boom, driving roars of flame through the chimney. The blacksmith works hard, driving the temperature up in the forge.

The stone cracks and pops in the heat, he glances in assessing the orange-red glow within the forge.

Still more to go, he decides.

He bends his back to the bellows again.

Whoop and boom, whoo-oop and boo-oom, on for what seems like hours.

Whoop and — Tan-tarah!

He stops, freezing in place to listen.

All the woods have gone quiet; no pick strikes, no trowel or shovel scrapes. The woods hold their breath.
The brassy hunting horn sounds again in the distance. Here and there, heads pop up above the ramparts of their pits.

A few miners are already running. Their tools abandoned in the pits.

The blacksmith curses and swings the pickaxe into the forge, cracking it open and spilling the glowing heart of it onto the ground.

“It was almost ready, damn-it!” he grumbles kicking aside the bellows into a bush.

The horn blows again, closer.

The night-brethren run on the ancient poacher trails through the trees. He sees their faces flash in the reflected light of his forge and knows that his face is visible to them as well. Curses hiss through his teeth.
He stoops and douses the flames with soil. Packing it with a boot, before he is running through the woods with the other scratch-miners.

Twigs catch and snag him. His knees, thighs, shoulders, hands, and face scratched, as he races blindly along the ancient trails in the wildwood.

He breaks through some thicker branches; the sharp cracks are loud in the night, and stumbles into a clearing. His foot catches on something, a root, a bole, or a rabbit hole, and he pitches forward. His hands fly out to brace his fall and plunge into nettles, just before his throat, and face, follow. Stinging venom fills the scratches, blistering the skin white.

He grits his teeth, trying to hold in the scream of pain, which escapes as a slow hiss, ending in a quiet, “—it.”
He struggles back to his feet, licking, blowing, and sucking on the inflamed bumps of the nettle rash.

In the dim starlight beneath the trees, he can make out the figures fleeing on parallel courses from their pits. Nursing his arms, he pushes on, trying to keep up with the pack.

His ankle complains slightly, a twinge of pain marking each weakened step, but he runs on, his boots helping support his weight.

The trees are thicker again ahead, and he pushes for their dark embrace. He finds a deer path, and his feet instinctively begin to pick up the pace, despite the pain, as he plunges on into darkness.

Old, but well-cobbled, boots slap the hard clay soil in the dark, a drum beat of escape, drowned out in his own ears by his pounding heart and the whistling of his panted breath.

He picks up speed, running with a limp; guided, not by sight, but by the push and nudge of twigs that fringe the deer run. Foot falling in front of foot he plunges on into the absolute darkness of the thick woods.
Then he misses the edge of the path, his foot drops an extra few inches, but that’s enough. Already weakened his ankle cannot help but give.

He pitches sideways, falling through a bush, to a sudden burst of lavender, and then rolling, sliding, and finally lying wrapped and tangled in briars and bushes.

Night air is cold on his flesh through the bramble tears and rents in his clothing, especially cold on the wet blood that seeps from the scratches.

He carefully checks himself, a few cuts and scratches, and a doubly weakened ankle, but nothing worse.

He tries to orient himself, the trees point his way up. He realises he has slid someway down the steep-sided gorge, and is down near the Orichalcum bridge, the shining symbol of the Industrial Alchemical revolution the world over. Orichalcum, the metal that the walls of Atlantis were built from, rediscovered by the Alchemist Abraham Darby and built, by his namesake grandson, into the bridge.

Looking back up the hillside, he can make out the shadows of cloaked figures on horseback, one lifts a hand and the fingers ignite with scarlet and yellow flame.

He spits a silent curse, damn them all, Elf-blooded changelings, and power mad traitors all, damn the Covenant they made with the Otherworld for magic, damn them and their Black-law that made iron illegal.

He guesses the Great War must have reached an end, so, of course the nobles return first. Their magic and money would bring them ahead of the masses.

He hears the nobles riding down on the miners, and then notices one horse has stopped in the path above him. There is no sign of its rider.

He freezes, holding his breath as he scans the steep bank of the gorge-side. There is no sign of anyone coming down to him, so he relaxes slightly. The briars creak softly.

The horse turns its head then, staring straight down at him. Its eyes flash with green flame in the darkness.
That’s no natural horse.

He’s up, limping, stumbling, falling, rolling down, plunging down drops, bouncing from tree to tree as he goes.
The horn sounds again, followed by a snort close enough to hear and he stops, wrapped around the base of a tree.
He listens, expecting to hear hoof-beats pounding down the path. Instead, only silence haunts the hill behind him.
He strains to listen, breath held and heart pounding in his throat.

Then he hears a soft clip-clopping on a path below him somewhere, and a deep voice hollers out, “Come out, come out, whosoever you may be, I know thou art about, hidden in a tree.”

He freezes at the sound of the voice and reaches into his pocket. His fingers find, and he grips hold of, a thin, metal dagger by its wrapped string handle.

The hooves stop dead, “What is this, what do I feel? Is that iron, or—”

He dives from the hillside, plunging down blade first through the brush, slashing at the heavy equine neck as he passes it.

“Aye, ya bastard!” he screams, “it be purest steel.”

The horse collapses, its form flowing as it falls, until a thin, sickly humanoid lies on the ground in the darkness.

“Now, I’m for it — ya Elfin git!” he mutters and kicks the dead Pwcha in the head, before limping off along the path, down towards the railway tracks and river below.

He crosses the railway just as a loud horn sounds up above him, too close. He limps along from sleeper to sleeper to hide his trail along the tracks. Hoping against hope that no one —
A noise like a bell rings in the night, a pure tone, alchemical in nature. Carrying elemental fury within the sound, only one weapon makes such a noise.

Toneloques, alchemical pistols. The alchemist’s answer to the flintlock, a bell-like barrel, and a hammer to strike it. The weapon that built the Empire.

He recognises the tone of alchemical fire and throws himself to one side, as the bush beside him bursts into incandescent flame. A second bell, a lower tone that he knows is a Curse-loque chimes close by, skimming the ground in front of him, turning the grass black; it catches him a glancing hit.

Dizzy, he sways on the edge of consciousness.

A voice calls out, was that his name?

Half-fainted, half-dead he drags himself back to his knees. Crawling, stumbling, not quite running, but not quite falling, he heads for the river, but it’s too little, too late; the next shot does not miss.

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