Word Count: 2,687
Notes: This was written for thinlizzy2 for the prompt: “non-magical people in a magical society, with some underground railroad stuff.”
Summary: In the middle of the Empire, Marta the smith works at her forge. But creating plows and hinges are least of her talents, and the smallest of her dreams.
Marta wiped her face with a rag as she went into the courtyard to see what all the ruckus was about. It was only when she realized the blazing sunshine of a high summer’s day felt cool to her skin how very, very hot the forge was. She felt, in these times, that her very breath should be as hot as dragon’s fire, that she could simply breathe and forge weapons of power and renown that would live throughout the ages…
“What in the name of the Three Fires is going on?” she bellowed to her apprentices. Marta might not have the lungs of a dragon, but she had volume enough to cow the twin bundles of mischief that the gods had shaped like teenagers. Brown-haired Ruby, who was the too-clever daughter of a tinkerer, dropped the long stick she’d been using to lever a sack of charcoal off the top of the stack. Peasant-blooded Shard, black-haired and blue-eyed, stopped trying to maneuver his overloaded wheelbarrow to catch another of Ruby’s sacks. As one, they opened their mouths to explain (or rather, protest), but Marta put up one massive, calloused hand and both apprentices fell silent.
“Clean up this mess and back on the bellows, both of you. I’ve plows to make.”
Ruby and Shard looked guilty as they jumped to, but Marta’s mind returned to the metal the minute she reentered the forge. New plow blades were needed for the surrounding village farmers, more than she’d ever needed before. The Empire was expanding, and with it, its needs. Farmers were needed in plenty, and the conquering armies sent them southward by the wagonload. When magic could transform even the wettest swamp or most arid desert into lush and productive farmland, what need was there to worry about where the Empire pushed its borders? They could conquer as they chose, and simply expand the central farms as the Empire demanded.
Marta’s land was safe and secure in the heart of the Empire; no one could starve them out. The glittering cities full of the elite ringed them on high, floating on enchanted clouds, enjoying the labors of the land below without having to see the labor and toil of the mundane.
Nor, sadly, was magic confined to the sky cities. Every time Marta cared to look up from her labors, she could see the copper-haired mage-smith Nilessian crafting her wares across the streets. She needed no dirty and smoking forge to craft her wares, no need of tedious banging and mind-numbing labor to put strength into her metal. No, mage-Blessed Nilessian sang to her ingots after blessing them in the flame of a candle. People crowded around to watch her work, while no one sane would put themselves in a beastly hot and stinking forge to see Marta do the same.
When Blessed Nilessian sang, fine metal goblets, smooth as mirrors and already engraved with flowers or family crests would form. Exquisite iron fancy-work for decorating houses, elaborate fire screens, even fine jewelry formed with every note from her lips. If that was all Blessed Nilessian did, Marta would have been content. Even if crafted by a mundane, fancy-work such as that might as well have been magic by Marta’s lights. She had always been a crafter of practical things, plows for the field, tools, fire pokers, hinges, grates, tongs, the furniture of home. But when mage-Blessed Nilessian wanted, she could make such things, but better. In the verse of a song, she could craft a fire poker that never drew out an errant spark, a hinge that would never squeak or sag, or a doorknob that would only open for its owner.
Marta looked down at the plow blade on her anvil and scowled as she brought her hammer down on it. Yes, the mage-smith even made plows, ones that could be pulled by a single man at a trot, and still leave a perfect furrow behind them. Some of the agrarian mage-Blessed staged races with their plowmen for sport. And they paid handsomely for such things, of course.
The plow took shape under Marta’s hammer, reheated and pounded until the edge began to form. Precious to her, and to the farmers who couldn’t afford mage-plows and mage-wheat, Marta’s wares only went to the poor, the mundane, those who labored to support the bounteous magical blessings of the Empire and its Blessed servants. No person of substance would boast of having Marta’s work in his house, even if her tools would have been better than a mage-smith’s. Indeed, the mundane supported most of their own needs, making themselves ready for the minute one of the Blessed would have need of them.
Marta was thankful for the repetitive ring of her hammer as an antidote to Nilessian’s beautiful songs. Did her mundane brethren know what she knew? That any item made by a Blessed was always part of them? Buy a mage-forged fire screen for your front room, and any word you spoke could be heard miles away by the Blessed that had crafted it. Marta wondered how many well-to-do mundane merchants had suffered for less-than-complementary tongues by suddenly being levied with strange fees, or even found themselves imprisoned. Not enough of them, apparently, to make the connection. They blamed their misfortune on anything but the Blessed.
Marta quenched the plow blade, and now could clearly hear Nilessian’s song. She turned, unwilling, to see a lovely sword taking shape out of the metal in the mage-smith’s hands. Marta swallowed and turned away. She was a maker of homey things, rather than the tools to protect them. It did not matter if a well-swung fire poker could crack a bone or that a plow’s blade could cut flesh easier than earth; sword, axe, spear, and arrow were forbidden her. No mundane smith could create a weapon that could not be tracked to hand by the mage that had made it, to prevent rebellion. And for truth, how could rebel soldiers fare armored with mundane fire grates and armed with plows? Not well against Empire solders with their paper-thin steel armor, tough as a wall of stone, or swords that could cleave through normal steel like hot knives through softened butter.
There was more than one way to rebel though, and not all of them ended impaled on the end of a sword. Marta worked on the plow, her hammer swinging tirelessly, the bellows pumping from the labor of her two apprentices, and tried with all her might to ignore Nilessian’s songs.
Darkness fell, and Marta finally dismissed her apprentices from their labors. By summer’s end both of them should have a goodly set of muscles from all the carrying and bellows-pumping. Aye, and a good deal of patience as well, Marta chuckled to herself as she walked into the courtyard to wash her sweaty face and soot-stained hands at the pump. Her dark brown hair grew even darker from the water as she doused her head to cool herself down, the water beading up on her forge leathers.
It was best that Ruby and Shard weren’t that strong now. Though they were cursedly clever. They should have shoveled the loose charcoal into the wheelbarrow from the open bins, rather than take bags off the stack. Those two had almost precipitated disaster in trying to save themselves a little labor.
Marta would know by summer’s end if they could be trusted, but now… She rubbed her face and hands dry on a clean rag. She would have to keep them busy until then. At least they were now home, eating their parents’ cupboards bare, safe from a choice Marta would ask of them later.
She checked around the courtyard to be certain all was locked up and no eyes were trying peer in. No mage-wrought thing was allowed in her household, so it was only mundane eyes she worried about. Let the other believe it was from spite and pride in her own skills that she surrounded herself with only mundane things; there were no prying ears in her domain.
Marta crossed to the pile of charcoal sacks and heaved up on the bottom two, as if she were trying to yank them free. What should have started an avalanche instead just swung free, showing a cunningly crafted trap door with sacks of charcoal nailed to it, covering a small cellar. Let the mage-Blessed use their magical ears and eyes to try to pry, honest cold iron lined every surface inside in a haphazard tangle of supporting rods and scrap plates. The mages could not see through mundane metal, which made Marta’s smithy the safest place in all the central lands.
“So, Larabee,” she said, looking down at the muscled dwarf of a man who guided the refugees. “Hot enough down there?”
“Hot as my temper. Dragon’s Teeth, Marta, I thought we were going to roast!” he grated back, his voice as rough as stone, his face and body streaked with soot.
“That’s why I have two sets of bellows. Shard doesn’t know he’s pumping air down here. How many this time?”
“Family. Parents, two kids, and then three more I sprang from the cattle cars on the way down,” Larabee said, waving behind him.
Marta stuck her head in the cellar to see the dirty and ragged crowd crammed into the small room, where they’d been hiding since coming through the cramped passage in the floor.
“All right you lot, up here, don’t make a peep. Clean up, drink your fill. Trash wagon comes around in an hour, and we can’t waste time.”
They swarmed out of the cramped cellar, everyone one of them dirty, bruised, and cut from the metal-lined passageways they’d crawled through to get this far. How many smiths before Marta had labored on the Iron Road? Dozens, maybe more. Five generations at least in Marta’s smithy along before she’d taken over from old Ephram.
Marta worked the pump for the refugees, smiling and nodding in the silver moonlight. Let them have a smile of hope before the next leg in their road. They would be heading west, across the Iron Mountains, where the mage-Blessed held no sway. Their powers could not force the ore-filled mountains to change terrain, like they could to other lands, and so it was safe to flee to its storm-lashed peaks. There a woman or man could earn what he would by the sweat of his brow, her fate dependent on her own skills, one’s influence held to the sphere of those one could convince, rather than by stretching out magic and creating, taking, or changing what one wanted on a whim.
Marta pumped the water savagely. Some of her mundane brethren tried to reason with those who voiced their displeasure at the state of things. Not every person was born with the talent to be a good farmer or miller or smith, so should people hate the Blessed for being born with their gift? No, Marta would not hate them for being born as they were. But gifted farmers and millers didn’t have the power to transform the landscape. Skilled smiths hadn’t banded together and taken over the Empire.
The word of a Blessed was as law. The mundane could not hold any high office, could not contradict a Blessed, could not stand opposed to their laws. Marta could not leave her smithy and town unless the Blessed required her services elsewhere, and then she must move without complaint. She’d lost her first apprentice that way. Pearl’s skills had caught the eye of a young Blessed lord who’d wanted her to take care of metal matters on his estate. Marta had never seen her again. Pearl had been running a small booth at the market and had simply never come home. All Marta had of her was her refunded apprentice fee and a short form-note of “requisitioning items for the betterment of the Empire” from the Blessed’s steward, both sent the following week. Never mind that Pearl’s parents had been counting on her to aid them in their dotage, nor that Pearl had left her toddler behind in their care. The Blessed only had to worry about his own comfort, not that of any mundane.
Not all Blessed were so callus, but there was nothing Marta could do to bring Pearl back. It would be better to live in a place where she could be jealous of a rival smith that could not sing Marta’s forge to exploding should she take exception to Marta’s stares. Better to live entirely free of magical whims. Marta would trade all the prosperity of the Empire to pound out her plows in peace, never worrying if someone she cared for would not come home in a way she could not help.
The refugees washed and dried and drank deeply, utterly silent. A single overheard word could see them all captured and punished, and they had not come this far to fail. Larabee waited until last. His skin was a crazy quilt of scars from the Iron Road; he’d been traveling it for years, back and forth from the Iron Mountains to the farthest reaches of the Empire. It gave the little man immense dignity, despite his child-like stature.
Under her forge leathers and amidst the burns scars of her profession, Marta had some of the same. It was their silent badge of trust; no mage-Blessed would or could keep scars—the magic gift they bore kept their bodies pure. By the time this batch of refugees reached safety beyond the Iron Mountains they would be recognized as survivors. Or strung up to die, if things went wrong.
Marta’s ears picked up the sound of iron horseshoes clopping on the pavement outside. “That’s your ride,” she said softly.
Larabee moved the refugees into deep shadow as Marta went to unlock the gate. She checked the road outside; no one else was abroad tonight, thank all the gods. With cheerful cursing, she let the two drivers, Geb and Fel, bring the two-mule wagon inside, and shut the gate behind them. Just as she did every night.
Picking up a shovel, she made a scraping sound along the stone by her pile of ash and discards. Larabee ushered the refugees forward and opened up the false wagon bed, also lined with scrap pieces of cold iron. They’d be crammed in there back to breast, but if they kept quiet, they’d get out alive. The next leg of the Road was in the trash heap. From there they could crawl through another passage to the next city, and onward to something better than a life spent in fear.
As Larabee shut them inside, Marta heaved shovelfuls of ashes, clinkers, and “rejected” bits of metal into the wagon bed. Once done, Geb threw a cover over it, blandly ignoring Larabee as if he didn’t exist, and Fel clucked to the mules. By the time Marta had dealt with the gate, opening to let the wagon out, and then locking it shut again, Larabee was down in the cellar again, the hidden cover closed, and was probably scampering back along the passageway. There would always be more people desperate enough to take the Road.
The “trash metal” Geb and Fel carried would be “sold” to other mundanes who were slowly making their own legs of the Road. By the grace of the gods, by the time any of the Blessed suspected Marta’s smithy, someone else could take her place.
Marta went back into the forge, making sure the fires were banked properly. Across the street, Blessed Nilessian sang her last songs, her final little ingot becoming a bird of paper-fine silver. Marta, in contrast, set out cold iron for the next day’s tasks, ready to become the plain, simple comforts of home. A few miles away seven people huddled in a false wagon bed, and another few hopefuls crawled along the passageway with Larabee on the road to freedom. In the darkness, Marta couldn’t help but think how her song of hammer and bellows was the sweeter tune.