flASH fiction: Volume 4: Gauntlet (6)

Gauntlet
By
Jason Pere

There was something magical about the city of Rustwatch before the breaking of dawn. During the day the metropolis of industry was filled with an oppressive flood of motion and sound. In those tranquil moments before the stack whistle sounded the start of the working day, the city was so briefly at peace but still maintained a powerful heat lurking beneath the surface. Walking the streets of the great city in the blue haze of the predawn was like walking along the spine of a slumbering dragon or other fantastic creature plucked from tales of Argaia long ago.

Shibon used to delight in those few minutes walking from her house to the workshop. The stroll along the alleys and throughways of the Iron Lord’s city was about the only time she had to indulge her thoughts and imagination before being consumed by the mundane struggle of a day behind a grinding wheel. As the years passed, more and more white started to mark her rich black hair her walks had become less of a respite for her wandering mind and more of a chore. Her hands were not as soft and supple as they used to be. While her fingers were adorned with well-earned calluses that any respectable craftsman would desire, her knuckles were beginning to crack and split form age. Even the balms and ointments that she worked into her palms nightly were losing their efficacy. More than her ailing hands, Shibon knew her lament was more bred from the fact she was becoming desensitized by days upon days of mindless work. Where her imagination had once flown high into the reaches of innovation, a simple life had slowly eroded her will to dream. Now it was a battle for the widow to indulge her creativity at all.

Shibon cracked her already bleeding knuckles by interlocking fingers and pressing. The snaps and pops that sounded from her hands soured her face. She still had more of her life to live than not but her body seemed to be traveling on a different timeline. She noted that her feet were already sore form the walk along the Rustwatch streets. She would have to soak them tonight. The image of the workshop appeared from around a bend in the road and it only served to deepen the unhappy lines set in Shibon’s jaw.

“Good morning,” sounded the voice of Rolly from Shibon’s flank. The broad craftsman emerged from one of the side streets and fell in step with his friend. His face was set in a rather vacant look that befit one who spent the entirety of their day doing little of merit but the corners of his mouth still managed to remain pleasantly upturned.

“Morning,” Shibon responded flatly. She had tried to inject some positivity into her response but the looming prospect of another day breaking her hands for the sake of mediocrity was a foe too strong to overcome with anything resembling joy.

“Did you sleep well?” Rolly inquired with an upbeat tone.

“About as well as I always sleep,” Shibon murmured cordially. “I guess the important thing is that I slept at all,” she continued after a brief refection.

“Agreed. Few things worse than working a wheel with heavy eyes,” Rolly said with a pitch that denoted some firsthand experience with the subject. “I slept well enough myself,” he added after Shibon missed the expected social que to inquire about his night’s rest.

The roar of Rustwach’s stack whistle split the sky like the war cry of a massive army on the charge. The city flared to life as Shibon, Rolly and the other craftsmen arrived at the workshop. Steam and fire were the life blood of the city and all of Rustwacth was awash with heat and smoke as braziers were lit, gears started turning and pistons began to pump.

“What do you supposed they are here for?” Rolly whispered to Shibon in a volume that ran dynamic contrast to his ample size. He nodded, not so subtly, in the direction of a few Iron Men standing guard outside of the workshop.

“I could not say. Maybe someone has been stealing scrap again?” Shibon responded. She gave a small shrug of her shoulders and held fast with her friend as the other craftsmen started to file into the workshop.

“They do not look like the normal sort you see around here though, too clean,” Rolly said tentatively.

“Aye, that they are,” Shibon said after taking a few moments to access the, peculiarly well kempt appearance of thier visitors. “And they got quite a good many stripes on their arms,” she added after seeing the mark of the Iron Men’s ranks so prominently displayed on the pauldrons of their platemail. After seeing many of the coworkers pass the Iron Men outside of the workshop unhindered, Shibon followed inside with Rolly close behind.

Shibon made her way through the workshop and headed for her grinding wheel. This morning in particular saw her having to navigate and maneuver around her coworkers who were taking their time getting to their assigned stations. Some dawdling among the workers was common place as, she was far from the only person in Rustwatch who loathed the monotony of sharpening a never-ending stream or worn and broken blades. Today, however the pre-shift milling about seemed more of an epidemic than days past. Shibon noticed the lack of productivity only intensifying as she got closer to her workbench. She was shocked that the Shop Lead had not started in upon the workers with a verbal assault for their idleness. Once the veteran crafter got to her wheel she found another item to add to the strange going’s on of the morning.

Laying on the table next to Shibon’s grinding wheel were a shining pare of solid silver horseshoes. The items had garnered the attention of most of the other nearby craftsmen. Shibon hesitantly picked up the metal pieces and began to closely scrutinize them. Her investigation was interrupted by a voice from one of the workbenches behind her station.

“Normally this sort of thing calls for a gauntlet but, I thought that your conduct the other day made these a more appropriate choice,” said Slate Roarkwin with a humorous confidence. The Iron Lord of Rustwatch stood from where he had been hiding in plain sight and went to Shibon’s workbench. He smiled broadly though his salt and pepper stubble as he took one of the ornately crafted horseshoes from her hands. “Shibon Highbrand, is it? I am Slate Roarkwin,” he continued with a smile and a slight bow that still managed to be flamboyant despite it’s subtlety.

Shibon was dumbstruck as she stood within arm’s reach of the city’s patriarch and leader. She had only seen the man at a distance before and only in her wildest dreams thought she might ever meet him face to face. Never once did Shibon think that the Iron Lord of Rustwatch would speak to her directly. “My Lord…I did not…I…” Shibon stammered wide eyed and awestruck by the Iron Lord’s uncompromising bearing. She stumbled over her words just as she did her feet, finding herself caught awkwardly in between a bow and courtesy. Her backbone was fast turning into molten lead as she regretted venting her frustrations the other day. “I am sorry…” was the only thing that she was able to utter amid her rapidly deteriorating resolve.

“Humph, and what are you sorry for?” Slate asked with a playful lilt.

“I spoke out of turn and above my station. I was just blowing off some steam. I never would have disparaged Forgemaster Gerwayne if…if..,” Shibon responded but soon lost her words amid a troubled sea of apprehension.

“If, you had known that your grievance would reach my ears. Come now this is my city. I have to know how my people feel about those who I keep close council with,” The Iron Lord said with a grin.

“That is not what I meant, my Lord,” Shibon stated but again was disarmed by Slate’s impossibly familiar demeanor.

The Iron Lord softened his eyes and handed the silver horseshoe back to Shibon. “These come straight from the Forgemaster’s anvil. Tell me what you see here,” he softly commanded.

Shibon looked at the ornate metalwork in her hands. The finish on the horseshoes were flawlessly buffed to a refulgent glint. They were light and easy to hold in the hand, certainly not functional but they made for fine decorations. Forgemaster Gerwayne had even taken the time to engrave a decorative screen of a herd of wild horses along the sides of both horseshoes. Shibon was ashamed to say that she could find little that was not spectacular about the metalwork.

Shibon felt as if she had been beaten. Something stirred inside the belly of the woman. She became aware of a sour and bitter taste on her tongue. Shibon realized that this is was defeat felt like. She loathed the sensation and had no tolerance for it, especially when the like of the Forgemaster were to blame for the feeling. She would not suffer this miserable state of being any longer than she must. With renewed purpose she refocused on the horseshoes and tore them to pieces with judgmental eyes.

“They are pleasing to look at. The pair would hang on a wall well enough, but silver of all things. Sad to say that they are not fit to tack on to even a pack mule, too light. Beauty without practicality is a waste. As Iron Men we are supposed to know this. It is in our blood,” Shibon stated firmly. She felt a wave of terror wash over her body as she delivered her heavy handed sentence upon the Forgemaster’s work. Her fear vaporized as she saw her word place a genuine smile on Slate Roarkwin’s face. The unspoken approval of the Iron Lord gave Shibon the will to drive her critique down to the bone. “Oh and one the note of physical ascetic, there is a bit of flash on the inside edge of this one. Could have benefited for a little extra soft filing. The other lacks symmetry. It is thicker on one side than the other, my Lord,” she said while handing the horseshoes back to the Iron Lord.

Slate looked down at the metal in his hands. He ran a finger along the inside edge of one and balanced the other on his palm. “Ha, so you are right. I knew that I would enjoy this visit one way or another. I am happy to see that what I heard about you might be right.”

“My Lord you have been observing me?” Shibon queried with disbelief.

“As I said, this is my city and I would be a poor leader if I did not know what assets lay within her walls. I am told that you are the most productive craftsmen to come through this workshop in ages. I am also told that your productivity is only exceeded by your ambition and you will to voice it,” Slate said. He tossed the horseshoes onto the workbench and folded his arms across his chest.

“Thank you my Lord,” Shibon responded with a gasp.

Slate took a step closer to the Shibon and lowered his voice so that none of the causal observers who flocked about the workbench would hear. “Between you and me, you are not so far off. The Forgemaster has begun to sit on his past accolades a little too much for my liking. He can often be a sack of air. I think you just might be what I need to remind him of his station,” he whispered. The Iron Lord passed a candid look at Shibon with his rich dark eyes.

Shibon smiled back at her lord and sovereign. She had to refrain from giggling like a child. The game that Slate had played with her today made her feel decades younger. It was the most fun she had experienced in years.

“So how would you care to try and show our good Forgemaster Gerwayne what you are made of?” Slate asked Shibon as he stepped back and spread his arms theatrically. He commanded a deep resonating voice and projected with enough strength so that all in the workshop could hear.

“I would like that very much, my Lord,” Shibon had said before she could even think the words.

“Excellent, be at the forge tomorrow when the stack whistle blows and we will all see what you have to offer,” Said the Iron Lord with a practiced showman’s flare. “I think you also better take the day to rest and save your strength. You will need it tomorrow,” he called back over his shoulder as he left the workshop with all the swagger and confidence of a living legend.

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