Home > Mermaid Steel, Writing > Chapter Three of Mermaid Steel

Chapter Three of Mermaid Steel

“There must be something you can do to head this off.” Sten leaned forward in his chair onto the table at the back of The Pied Cock pub, pressing his point.
Across the table, Constable Arum Blaine sat resolute and impassive. He folded his heavily muscled arms across his broad chest and leaned back in his chair. “I can’t arrest anyone for a crime that hasn’t happened yet.”
“I’m not talking about arresting anybody. These fishermen need to be reminded of the law. They need to know you’re there to support them if the Merrow step over the line, but also to punish the humans if they overstep.”
“You’re calling them Merrow? Isn’t that what they call themselves?”
“Are you going to wait until this blows up?”
“Challenging the treaty is not by itself a crime. I’m here to keep the peace, and that means punishing anyone who breaks the peace. The merfolk have backed down whenever our fishermen have moved into new territory. If they want to stand up for what they see as their rights, then they can do that too. Whatever boundaries the two sides work out, that becomes the new norm. I don’t set those boundaries, they do.”
“Both groups see this as fighting for their livelihoods. Nobody’s going to back down without a fight, and there goes your peace.”
They were interrupted by half a dozen fishermen noisily entering the front of the pub, laughing and cheering each other on. The last one in, Roff Collum, was much quieter. He sat at a table off to one side while his fellows crowded against the bar and ordered drinks. Sten watched and wondered. This did not seem to be the usual return from the sea.
“Did you see the looks on McDonagh’s face and his crew when they saw the muzzle smoke and those spears sticking out of the deck rails? I thought he was going to hand out oars to get out of there faster!”
“If you don’t stand up for yourself, then nobody else is gonna do it for you.”
“Damn straight. If Atlan taught us nothing else, it’s to stand up for yourself.”
“Just think lads. If McDonagh and the others don’t want to upset the natives…” the full bearded sailor paused dramatically, “then we’ll have Parker’s Meadow all to ourselves!”
The other five men at the bar roared with laughter. The speaker was their captain, one Selric Boole, all five foot five, and 200 pounds of broad shouldered, loud-mouthed meanness. Sten had learned not to try to reason with Boole. Every time he had tried to discuss anything with him, the sailor resorted to shouting down any point he disagreed with.
Boole continued. “Hey, what’re we doing over here drinking while Roff sits over there under a cloud.” Boole grabbed a bottle and another glass off the bar and walked over to Collum’s table. “You should be celebrating too.” He turned back and raised his own glass. “To Collum, who had to guts to fire back, and blast the bastard fin back into the depths!”
“Back into the depths!” the others yelled in unison.
Sten caught Arum’s eye and held it.
The Constable raised his eyebrows and cocked his head, but did not get up.
“You said you had to wait until a crime was committed,” Sten reminded him.
Arum turned his head to continue watching the fishermen.
Sten noticed Collum was not looking very celebratory. He drank the whisky Boole brought him. Sten recognized it as drinking to drown memories.
Sten got up. “Excuse me, Constable.” He walked casually into the thick of them and leaned against one of the many posts that held up the beamed ceiling. “Hey fellas. Did I hear you say you’ve been firing those new rifles? How are they working?”
“They work great!” Boole eyed him suspiciously.
“You do know you have to clean them with rags and oil every night after you fire them. The powder burns the inside of the barrel down to the bare metal. That will rust overnight if you don’t treat it.”
Boole’s frown spread into a grin. “Listen up, lads! Words of wisdom from our blacksmith. Take good care of those rifles. We’re gonna need ‘em.”
While the others laughed at Boole’s antics, Sten stepped over to Roff. “Mind if I join you?”
He glanced up from his drink absentmindedly. “Suit yourself.”
“Sounds like things got pretty exciting out there today. They started throwing spears at you, and you shot one of them?”
“Yeah.” He paused and then said quietly, “I panicked. Lost my head.”
“You’re not proud of yourself? They’re sure proud of you.”
Roff looked down at his drink. “Shooting a man for defending his farmland is nothing to be proud of.”
Sten smiled a half grin. “I’ll let you in on a little secret. I’m proud of you for feeling that way. That treaty has made good sense for both villages for a hundred years. If someone wants to change it, firepower is not the way.”
Roff looked up at him. “Sten, you’re not helping.”
“Oh, I know. Regret will eat your guts. How badly do you want to make up for it?”
“What are you talking about, some kind of payback?”
Sten pointed to the back of the pub. “Blaine is sitting right over there. If you want to get it off your chest, he’s the man you should talk to.”
“What, so he can throw my arse in jail?”
“No, Roff. It’s not about you arse. It’s about stopping arses like Boole from getting the whole town up in arms and starting a war. Blaine’s got to know that not everyone thinks like Boole.”
Roff looked sideways over at Blaine.
Sten pressed his point. “Besides, they say confession is good for the soul.”
Roff’s gaze drifted from the constable in the back to the captain by the bar. “You make a good point. I think I will talk to Blaine.” He looked Sten in the eye. “Later.”
Sten understood. He was still disappointed. He took in a deep breath and let it out slow, then pushed his chair back and stood up. “Enjoy your drink.”
****
Sten’s thoughts were so dark he didn’t notice the nearly full moon lighting his way home. He hadn’t taken a lantern with him, since he hadn’t planned on staying so late at the pub.
The only thing he noticed through the swirling cloud in his mind was the rhythm of his footsteps on the wharf planks. He always liked that rhythm. It was like the song his anvil sang when he pounded steel. It comforted him. Or at least, it usually did. Tonight he found no comfort. His village was headed for a pointless, unjust war, and no one cared to hear his warning.
As he approached his shop, he noticed the lapping of the waves on the pilings below was especially loud. He looked over the edge and indeed the tide was very high. He turned back to his door and startled when he saw someone standing there. He could see their outline against the whitewashed wall of his shop, but the bright moon cast a strong shadow over the stranger. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me, Sten. I didn’t mean to surprise you. You don’t see very well in the dark, do you?”
“Chielle? What are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”
“We need to talk about what happened today.” He had never heard her voice so tense. He couldn’t make out her features, but she sounded pretty angry.
“How will you find your way home in the dark?”
“I’ll use the moon. Never mind about me. A Merrow was shot today.”
“Yes, I know. It was horrible. Did he live?”
“Yes, he’ll live.”
“I’m so sorry this went so badly.”
“That’s not good enough. We want the man who shot Kokoa.”
“Oh, wait a minute. That’s just going to fan the flames.”
“What does that mean?”
“Handing him over to you will push the villages into a full scale war.”
“How?”
“Whatever punishment you give him, the humans are going to see it as unjust, and they will attack your people all the more viciously. Then you’ll want retribution, and the whole thing will spiral out of control.”
“Our punishments are very just. We would punish him the same as we would one of our own, no worse and no better.”
“You know what, I believe you. But my voice doesn’t count for anything up there,” he said pointing back in the town. “I just spent the evening trying to convince our law man that his town is about to erupt in violence, and he ignored me. He sat there and watched the fishermen celebrating their victory.”
“You saw the men from the boat? Did you see the man who shot the Merrow?”
Sten paused and thought about not telling her, but the pause gave it away.
“You did! You know who he is!”
“Yes, I know him. I spoke with him, and he is very sorry for what he did. He says he panicked and fired without thinking. He’s miserable with regret.”
“Well, that’s good. It will make it that much easier for everyone to get over his punishment.”
“You’ve got to give up on that idea. It’s just not going to happen. They will never give him up to you.”
“If your fellow villagers would listen to you, would you tell them to give him up?”
“Chielle, don’t put me in a spot like that.”
“Would you?”
“Probably not. I just don’t see that leading to anything but more hatred and violence.”
She made a hollow grating, choked off sound that left him imagining how angry she must look. He was glad for the darkness. “You are so infuriating!”
He started to step towards her, but then he heard a loud splash.
****
Sten left his curtains open so he awoke with the first light of day. He tore open the remains of a loaf of yesterday’s bread and ate it with a block of cheese while he got dressed. He had no time to waste. He gathered up the raw materials and tools needed to repair a large two-chamber water pump, stacking everything neatly on the main work bench. He had everything ready when Jacio came walking up the wharf.
“Good morning!” he called out through the open window. “Come on in. I’ve got something I want to show you.”
“Good morning,” Jacio said as he walked in. He stopped when he saw the array of items.
A couple of days ago Norn Tureck brought this pump by. The flapper valves are rusted out and need to be replaced. You know what that involves?”
Jacio nodded and described the job. “That means taking the whole top off, making new flappers and putting it all back together.”
“Exactly,” Sten said with some pride in him. “We did a smaller one of these a couple of weeks ago. It’s a whole day’s work, and I haven’t had a big block of time to devote. So I’m giving the job to you.”
The boy blinked and looked up at him.
“I trust you to do this right. It’s a big job, but only because there’s lot of steps. Each step is pretty simple.”
“Are you going to help me?”
“No. I’m not going to be here today at all. I’ve got business up in Silverton.”
“The capitol is three hours away on horseback. You don’t own a horse. You’re not going to hitch a ride on the fish wagon?”
“I’m hoping to borrow a horse from Norn. I’m leaving you in charge. If you don’t get it done today, that’s fine. We can finish it together tomorrow when I’m back.”
Jacio took a deep breath and looked rather dubious.
“You have the skills to do this. Nobody else is scheduled to come by today, so you’ll have no distractions. If you need a hand or if you get hurt, Gerb is right down the wharf. He’ll be there all day sewing sails.”
“Just like every day,” he finished for his boss. “Well, thank you for having faith in me.”
“You’re a smart kid.” Sten pointed at his chest. “It’s time you let your inner Atlan shine.”
Jacio smiled. “All right. Have a safe trip.”
****
Norn Tureck owned a farm that stretched from the edge of town all the way back to the foot of the mountains. By the time Sten got there, a score of men were busy working the fields and tending animals. Norn wasn’t so sure about letting Sten take one of his horses for an all day trip. He changed his mind when Sten offered to make an even trade of the use of the horse for the repair of the pump. For that generous a trade, Norn threw in a bag of grain big enough to feed the horse for the day.
On the first half of the thirty mile trip, Sten and the tall brown stallion named Flash had the road to themselves. The road wound its way up over the coastal mountain range, with no villages along the way up to the pass summit. It gave him time to think about what was happening in Saint Rachel and Celidan. The warm sunshine, the gentle breeze, and the smell of flowers wafting off the hillsides did nothing to lighten the weight of his thoughts.
What had changed that had brewed such tension and unrest between the two villages? Sten had only been there a year, and although the humans already did not trust the Merrow when he arrived, people had worked themselves up to the point of war. Were the fishermen just being greedy? The self-congratulatory joy he had seen in the pub looked more like a score being settled. Had the Merrow done something to so enflame them?
Whatever the cause, something had to be done to stop the violence. If Arum Blaine didn’t think it was his job to steer the fishermen away from mayhem, then some other authority would have to be brought in.
Just past the summit, Sten was pleased to see a settlement. Flash was sweating and looking parched. It was actually just a group of four small farms alongside the road. As he turned into the common yard, he noticed two teenagers digging in a vegetable patch. The boy had bright red hair and freckled white skin, while the girl had dark skin and curly black hair. They hardly noticed Sten’s approach, as they were flirting with each other as much as getting any work done. Sten hesitated and watched them for a moment. He recognized that look. He’d gotten that look from Chielle that first day. She certainly wasn’t in a flirting mood last night on the wharf.
“Excuse me. I am Sten Holdsmith, from Saint Rachel by the sea. Could I get a bucket of water please, for my horse?”
The boy said, “Sure, mister.”
The girl grinned at the boy and provoked him, “Race ya for it!”
When it looked as if the two of them were about to run off, Sten interrupted. “Isn’t that the water pump, right there?” he said, pointing across the front yard at a standing hand pump.
“Oh, that’s broke,” the boy explained. “We get water from the spring back in the canyon,” he said pointing away from the road.
“Did this well run dry?”
“No, sir. The lifter inside is broke.”
“Well, that’s easy enough to fix. It’s just a rod.”
“Yeah, my dad has a rod to fix it. We just can’t get the top off.”
Sten got off the horse and tied the reins to a fence post. He walked across the yard and examined the pump. It was covered in a thick patina of red rust, except where someone had scratched and dented it. “The top unscrews. You can’t just pull it off.”
“Oh.” After a moment’s hesitation, the boy followed up with, “Are you sure?”
“I’m a blacksmith. I know how these things are made.” It was badly rusted, but seemed otherwise intact. He tried the handle and indeed it was not connected inside. He considered tapping it to loosen the joint, but didn’t want to do any more damage to the threads.
He noticed the fence that surrounded the yard was split rails sitting in notched posts. He pulled a rail out of its cradles and slid one end of it up under the spigot, wedging its length against the vertical barrel to form a lever arm. He gave it a shove, but it did not budge.
The boy and the girl stood by watching him. Sten reached his hand out to the boy. “I’m Sten.”
The boy shook his hand, “I’m Cam.”
“Nice to meet you, Cam.” Sten looked at the girl, and then back at Cam, and waited.
Cam didn’t take the hint.
Sten extended his hand to the girl. “And what would your name be, my dear?”
She blushed and took his hand gingerly. “Mada.”
“Very nice to meet you as well.” Turning back to Cam, he continued. “Can you come over here and grab this end of the rail? I’ll hold this still here at the pump, so we don’t accidentally break the barrel off.” When Cam had taken up position, Sten told him, “Now push as hard as you can.” Sten pushed against the barrel to aim all of Cam’s energy into twisting. Cam leaned into it and grunted his excursion, but the top of the pump did not budge.
“Okay, let’s try something else,” Sten offered. He walked over, untied Flash, and led him into the yard and over to the pump. He took a length of rope out of the saddlebag and tied one end to the saddle. The other end he looped around the end of the rail that Cam still held. Sten turned to Mada. “Come on over, I want you to meet someone. Mada, this is Flash.” He handed her the reins. “Can you please lead him away in that direction?” he said pointing straight out from the rail.
Mada and Cam exchanged smiles of understanding and seemed happy to be caught up in the sudden adventure. Cam held the rail up in place, Sten leaned into the barrel to hold it upright, and Mada beckoned Flash to pull. The horse resisted when he felt the rope go taut, but upon the girl’s encouragement, Flash leaned into the task. Sten had to grab and push the pipe and the short end of the lever with all his might to keep the horse from snapping the whole pump off.
Cam looked down at how Sten was holding the barrel vertical and let out a low whistle.
At last the top twisted, slowly at first, with an earsplitting squeal of dry metal on metal. Once they had it a quarter turn around, the sound subsided and the rope slid free. Sten dropped the rail and turned the top around and round by hand.
“There you go,” he announced with quiet triumph. “Now your father can repair the lifter.”
Mada beamed. “No more hauling water all the way back from the spring!”
Cam grinned at her and shook his head. “One last trip Maddy! We still owe Mr. Sten here his bucket of water.”
She pouted and slumped her shoulders, but then brightened. “Said I’d race ya.” With that the two took off running.
Sten watched them in admiration of their enthusiasm. He wound up the rope and put it way, and started brushing the sweaty salt off Flash’s hide. A few minutes later the two returned with a full bucket of water. Sten took a handful for himself and Flash sucked up the rest.
“My dad will be back from town soon,” Cam said. “You can talk to him about what we owe you for getting this open for us.”
“You don’t owe me anything. I got my water. We just had to work for it.”
Cam blinked and rolled his eyes in thought. “Are you sure? Farm hands sure don’t work for free.”
Sten smiled as he explained. “I have a friend who feels that paying someone for something is really just trading gifts. You needed a hand getting that loose. I was willing to do it for nothing, as a gift, because it was the right thing to do.” Why was it he smiled whenever he thought of Chielle? “You gave me and my horse water, even though you had to run all the way back into the hills to get it. You were going to get it for me even before I helped you. So that was a gift too. So we traded gifts.”
“Like we’re celebrating something?” Mada ventured.
“Absolutely. Happy…Wednesday!”
****
The last time Sten had to deal with a court, it was against his will and it did not end well for him. Even though these circumstances were very different, he still had to purposely calm himself as he approached the bright white, massively beamed annex behind the provincial palace that was the Courthouse. On top of his apprehension at coming here, Sten did not do well with crowds. He did even worse with waiting. When the Courthouse doors cracked opened just before midday, there was already a throng of fifty people gathered around. Sten eyed the people in the crowd suspiciously. He was not prepared to stay in Silverton overnight if the court could not hear him today.
The crier who stepped out onto the front steps announced his instructions with the bored, flat tone of a speech delivered many, many times. “Everyone who is here to discuss taxation issues line up on my left side.” The long, drooping liripipe end of his official hat swung as he pointed with his whole arm. “Everyone who is here to settle a dispute with your neighbor, line up on my right side. Everyone else, please stay in the middle and I will hear you out once I get the other two groups inside.”
Sten assumed he fit into the dispute group. He was happy to see there were only a few others who joined him on that side.
The crier stepped down along Sten’s line and handed out wooden cards with numbers painted on them. Sten got Six. “You will be heard in the order of these numbers. Do not lose your number, or you will lose your place in line.”
Sten nodded in appreciation of the efficiency. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.
The crier led Sten’s group inside, through an entry hall, and into the large central chamber of the building. Although he had just seen how big the building was from the outside, the white stone columns that lined the chamber made the room seem even taller inside. The space was illuminated by narrow floor to ceiling windows between the columns. Sten didn’t recall seeing any windows on the exterior of the building. The room had benches in the back and chairs up front, and was dominated by a throne behind a massive desk up on a platform at the front. They were led up the center aisle of the white tiled floor and told to sit in the chairs and await their turn.
A different crier came in through a side door and announced, “All present rise and bow to His High Lordship, Jesery Clune, presiding!”
A man wearing a tall, round, purple velvet pillar of a hat and a matching set of full long robes walked in and stepped up behind the desk. He waved his hand as he sat down. “You can sit. I’m glad to see there are only a few of you today. I won’t have all day today, as I have a supper engagement with the Governor. When I call your number, step forward and state your name and the nature of your dispute, then wait.” He pointed to a table with men and papers off to one side. “The scribes will make a record. I will then ask you questions. You are only to answer the questions I ask you. I will not tolerate anyone launching into a long diatribe about how they’re right. When you’re done answering my questions, I will give you my judgment of your case. The adversaries in the dispute will then shake hands in front of me, agreeing to abide by my judgment. You will then go over to the scribes and place your mark on the record. Anyone who later breaks the accord we make today will answer to me as a criminal. All right, let’s get started. Who has Number One?”
Two men got up and presented their dispute over sheep that had wondered from one man’s land onto another after a fence was not repaired as one man had promised.
So it was also with the next four disputes. Two men got up and answered the High Lord’s questions, and he handed down decisions. Sometimes the men were happy with their results, but usually one was happier than the other. Overall, Sten thought the High Lord’s decisions were fair. He was even-handed, even if he generally didn’t seem too concerned about the details.
After watching him decide case after case, Sten tried to learn the High Lord’s clean shaven features, the way he set his jaw, or the way he twitched his brow, in hopes of being able to read the man’s face when it came time to make his own appeal.
Even with the High Lord marching through the cases, the process took time. Sten noted the sunlight coming into the room at lower and lower angles.
“Number Six!”
Sten got up and stood before the judge. He tried to organize his presentation, but could not help remember feeling the weight of the irons on his arms and legs the last time he had stood in a spot like this. “My name is Sten Holdsmith, from the village of Saint Rachel by the Sea.”
“Mr. Holdsmith, where is your opponent?”
“My dispute is not that kind, Your Lordship. I am here today to inform you of a much larger conflict that is about to break out between the people of Saint Rachel and the Merrow of Celidan, the village just offshore.”
“Do you have any stake in this dispute, other than just being a concerned citizen?”
“No, Sir.”
“Has someone broken the treaty your two villages have?”
“It is being broken as we speak. A fisherman shot a merman who was trying to defend his fishing grounds.”
“What has your constable done about this?”
“He says the fishermen and the Merrow need to work out their differences, and he is willing to wait and see. I’m here to report that we are about to see a war break out.”
“The merman who was shot, did he live?”
“Yes, sir. His name is Kokoa.”
“Then why are you here, and not him?”
“Trust has completely broken down between the two villages. The Merrow think the humans will take any fishing grounds they can grab, and the humans think the Merrow are just a bunch of sneak thrives. Since the humans have steel weapons, including guns, and the Merrow do not, the humans are indeed in a position to just take whatever they want. It has come down to spears versus rifles. The Merrow assume there can be no justice from humans.”
“How do you know that?”
“I have friends among the Merrow, and I was told. I came here to prove them wrong.”
“What kind of justice are you seeking?”
“Enforcement of the treaty boundaries.”
“How will that restore peace?”
“I don’t know, Your Lordship. I just hope to limit the conflicts and hope things can return to normal.”
“Your plan seems only half baked.”
“Surely there is history of the Crown intervening to settle disputes like this. Was the Crown not involved writing the original treaty a hundred years ago?”
“I ask the questions here. You come dangerously close to making a demand of this office. I did not say I would do nothing. I will consider what you have said. I thank you for bringing this to my attention.”
There was a long silence as the High Lord peered down at Sten. Sten knew that was the most he would be able to say. “Yes, Your Lordship.”
“Number Seven!”

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Categories: Mermaid Steel, Writing
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