The soft rain continued, day after day with only minor variation, until it wasn’t weather anymore, it was simply a fact about this joyless place. In Mountain Hole there are stone and wood houses. There is one main road. The air has a lot of water in it. As the road became more saturated and mud grew deeper with the churn of every mule and cart, the fully-laden wagons with the treasures of the mountain were deep almost to their axles and extra teams of oxen were required to move them through town and down the mountainside. Ingots of tin were stacking up by the foundry, waiting for sunnier days. Valuable down the mountain, worthless where they lay. Somewhere, someone was angry, shouting at gods who are allegedly responsible for the rain. Perhaps the goddess of tin had offended the god of rain. It’s as good an explanation as any for the weather.
For me, life fell into a comfortable pattern. I would rise, bleary-eyed and disheveled, tongue dry and swollen, then venture downstairs for my first drink of the day, followed some time later by my first meal, when my stomach was properly prepared for it. My new daytime friends, the men too broken to work in the mines and smelters but too tired to leave town, greet me with mutters and faded smiles. Old Walter, with his gray beard so coarse and wiry he could sculpt it. Reed, with only two fingers and a thumb left to his name, one eye closed behind scar tissue. Milo, young yet, patiently coughing his life into his handkerchief. A few others.
I buy a round, perhaps another, and the cards and the dice come out. I pretend I can’t tell the cards by the wear on their backs, pretend I don’t know the dice aren’t quite square. More drinks, and by evening, when the miners who can still work come staggering in, the games expand, and the money flows, and I am floating on this tide, moving with it, listening to the jokes and stories, and occasionally helping Elena expand her vocabulary. Two other boys work in the evening, Elena’s cousins, but all eyes are on Elena. Even these men see what she might become.
One might be tempted to say that the tired men in the tavern loved Elena, if one watched the way they glanced toward her, and the way they laughed at her abuse. But in a place like Mountain Hole, there can be no love; love is about the tender moments — the glances, the secret smiles, the brush of a cheek — but here the capacity for tenderness has been wrung from the men who toil and drink and wake in the morning to toil again. They look at Elena with the same eyes they use for the prostitutes up the street, the same eyes they use on the mountain that holds the precious ore. They wish only to take.
The evening moves through its natural course, and finally, exhausted, drunk, a little bit poorer than I had been at the start of the day, I say goodnight to the last of my friends still standing and stagger up the stairs where a fire awaits me, and a last pitcher of wine. Often I fall asleep before I even finish it.
Each day finds me a little bit poorer, but that is by design. It is a tithe I pay to sustain the goodwill of those around me. While they profit from me, they will tolerate me. Perhaps even like me. It is my habit, then, to check my purse at the start of each day, to measure how long the goodwill will last.
This time, too long. An amiable man who loses at gambling passes inevitably from friend to mark. I had enough gold to last a hundred years in this shabby town. But that was impossible.
There is nothing of value in Mountain Hole but the mine and the tools used to coax the ore out of the mountain. The residents of this thrice-damned city fall in the second category; they are nothing more than implements to be used until they break, then discarded. On the first morning, after breakfast, I sat on my bed, the gold coins shining as I spread them out in front of me, understanding for the first time just how much wealth I held. I wondered how much the mountain might cost. Gold wishes always to run free; too much gold in one place leads always to bloodshed.
I would go to a different town, I decided, before it was too late. Secure the armor for Bags, a knife for Elena, stay long enough to teach her the basics of its use, and then I would be on my way to another town, a place with opportunities to spend money commensurate with the gold I held. I would leave Mountain Hole before any blood spilled.
Another fairy tale.
On the third day of my routine Bags and Kat found me after breakfast, well into my cups. Bags’ new armor was ready, it would seem. I emptied my mug and stood to follow them, moving very carefully so as not to reveal my inebriation. Bags chuckled, Kat scowled, and we went on our way. We hugged the buildings on our way up the street to avoid the deepest of the muck, walking in silence as we always did, this time with Katherine in front and me bringing up the rear. The street was deserted; everyone in town was either hard at work or hard at forgetting where they were.
Under the shelter that stood between the forge and the rain, Bags fidgeted like a school boy called before the headmaster. Mrkl regarded us, grunted, and signaled to one of his apprentices. The boy scuttled away and returned almost immediately with a beautiful chain shirt.
I don’t wear armor; if someone is angry at me and close enough to cut me, I have already lost. But I appreciate armor, and what I was looking at bordered on art. Supple and impenetrable. Even my stiletto would have difficulty finding its way through that shirt.
The boy handed it to Mrkl; the blacksmith looked at each of us and handed it to Kat. She took a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship with her fingers then turned to Bags. She held it out, but he didn’t move. “Take off that piece of crap,” she said.
Bags took half a step back and fingered at the latest gap in his current armor. “I don’t know,” he said.
“She’s saved you many times before,” I said, stepping forward and touching his old, battered armor. “But she’s tired. Let her rest.”
Bags smiled his crooked smile and shook his head. “The plague take you, Martin. All right.” He unbuckled his belt and handed it to me, scabbard and all. His ragged cloak went to Katherine’s care, and the final remains of his old chain shirt as well. Where he’d had a tattered cloth undershirt before, he now had a padded leather vest. No doubt a gift from Katherine. I kicked myself for not thinking of that as soon as we got to town.
Bags took the new armor from Kat and stood, running his fingers over the fine mesh. “Nice,” he said, almost disappointed, as if he had hoped to find a flaw that meant he could refuse it. “Heavier than my old one, but… this is …”
“Impressive for three days,” Katherine said.
Mrkl shrugged and said, “I like to be prepared. My boys will be working long hours to draw more wire from good steel.”
Katherine looked over at Bags as he fingered his new shirt. “Perhaps you could consider a helmet next,” she said. “Could you make a helmet?” She asked Mrkl.
The blacksmith shrugged. “Of course.”
“I’d be happy to pay for it,” I said.
Bags shook his head. “Not… yet. This is enough to get used to.” He took a breath and let it out again. “Here goes.” Kat dropped his old armor in the mud and rushed to his side to help him pull the new shirt over his head and settle it into place. I handed him his belt and he buckled it on.
“You look good,” I said. An understatement. In that soft light, in his perfect armor, the big man looked like a hero from the stories. “You’re really going to have Elena after you now,” I joked.
Bags took his cloak out of Katherine’s hands and wrapped it around himself. “Time to get in a fight,” he said. The perfection of his new armor made him nervous.
“I have no doubt you will solve that problem,” I said. Bags threw me a toothless smile in return.
The old shirt Kat left with Mrkl, to melt down. Mrkl spoke a number, Kat gave him coins, and Mrkl turned back to his forge. He had never once looked at me. “Need three more days for the knife,” he said to the air. “The iron is shit here.”
Bags looked at me with a quirked eyebrow and his half-smile. “What’s got up his ass?”
“The past,” I said. “Or the future. They’re not that different.” I started walking back toward the tavern. Kat and Bags followed. I let them catch up as I slogged through the mud. To Bags I said, “Where will you go now?”
Katherine waited a moment before answering. “We are supposed to meet someone here.”
“He’s late,” Bags added.
I thought back to our first night, back in the woods. “You said you’d follow me if I went South.”
“I was not completely honest with you,” she said, with perhaps a hint of a smile.
“And now here we are.”
“Here we are.”
“How long are you going to wait for him?”
“We can’t afford to stay here much longer,” she said. “Word of Rothfork’s demise will catch up to us soon enough.”
“You have friends,” I said.
Katherine snorted a laugh. “I have allies. They all lust for the same things Wilmont does. They might help me, if it gave them advantage and they were’t too busy cowering behind their walls, but in the end they’re no better than he is.”
I had told her the same thing three days before. I stopped, and after a step the other two stopped and turned back toward me. “Then quit,” I said. The crease between Kat’s eyebrows deepened, but I pushed ahead. “Let them kill each other without your help. Find a place in the woods, marry Bags, raise a brood of unruly children and devote your life to hunting and avoiding conscription.”
Bags coughed. Kat looked at the mud oozing over her boots. A lock of hair had come loose from the tyranny of her ponytail and hung curling in front of her eyes; I watched as a drop of water grew at its tip until it broke free and fell, dropping into the mud, gone forever. “I can’t,” she said.
“Yes, you can. I can teach you how. It’s actually pretty easy.”
She looked straight at me. “Why won’t you help me?” Her voice was tired.
“I am helping you. Right now I’m trying to save your life.”
“A life of cowering. Of looking out only for myself.”
“And your husband and unruly brood.”
Kat shook her head. “How do you do it, Martin? How do you live when your life is so empty of meaning?”
She’d meant that as an insult; she’d wanted to wound me, to bruise my heart with her words, to draw me out. But it was a simple truth, the axiom of my family. “All our lives are empty,” I said. “We come screaming into the world; sooner or later we return to the muck and we’re forgotten. What we do with our time here means nothing to our rotting flesh.”
“That is terrible,” she said, her voice little more than a whisper now.
“You are welcome to write that on my gravestone,” I said. “I won’t know the difference.”
“It matters what you do,” Bags said. “And you think all those nobles are the same, but they’re not. None of them are great, but Wilmont…” Katherine shot Bags a warning glance and he shrugged. “It would be different if he were king. Even down here in the muck.”
There was something they weren’t telling me, and whatever it was, I was happy to not hear it. “In that case,” I said, “Perhaps you should reconsider my offer to buy you a helmet.”