“For goodness sake, go help Fiona deal with her loom and quit plaguing me.” Rafe’s sister stood before the anvil, maul pounding flakes of burned iron off a horse shoe. “Her husband is too poorly, or too drunk, to be of any use. You used to be best friends. Give her a hand. It will do you both good. I swear. I do not know how you’ll last the winter.”
Rafe left her sister’s forge and walked along the street, boots crunching through ice. It had been cold long enough that the water had receded leaving hollow frozen puddles. She should have waited until spring. Rafe had always tried to winter in the north where the sun stayed out and people didn’t have two homes, one above ground, and the other below. Here, in the far south, they said that since the sun pretty much disappeared there was no reason to risk cold as well as darkness.
Her grandmother used to have a quote for everything. This time of year it was, “Hollow puddle, we’ll go cuddle. Underground, safe and sound.”
Rafe used to look forward to that, as she had all her grandmother’s comforting epigrams, until the winter Rafe had contrived to escape top side and first saw the stars dancing in the bands of wavering color. Some said it was angels frolicking with the dead. It had been a real disappointment to learn that there were places in the world you couldn’t see the Angels’ Dance.
“This will be the first winter in I don’t know how long that I’ve spent below ground.” Rafe had met up with Fiona at the weaver’s house. Now, in each hand Rafe carried an end of each of the beam supports for Fiona’s loom.
“You used to hate it when we moved down at the start of winter.” Fiona balanced her ends of the beam supports against her hips. “You used to tell your Ma if the animals could breath cold air all winter, so could you.”
“And I did, too. For all the years I served with Graven’s Guard. It’s worse than living in a cave. And that is bad enough, what with the smoke, and chamber pots, and, you know, smells.”
Rafe looked around. It didn’t, in fact, smell as bad as she remembered. It didn’t smell exactly fresh, but more like walking through one of the unused wings in the Emperor’s palace, like dust, dead flowers, and waxed wood. Rafe couldn’t even smell the smoke from the oil lamps burning from the curved, hangers tipped with the little iron mouse her sister used as a signature. The flames were guttering a bit, as if in a breeze.
“Marlon felt the same,” Fiona told her. “Especially after he grew up hearing you complain. You knew he married Joan, just after you left?”
Rafe nodded and lay her end of the beams on the floor. Jenna had done a good job catching her up on who had gotten married to whom, and whose children visited the forge to flirt.
Rafe started to fit the loom together while Fiona kept talking. Not much had changed since they were kids, Rafe thought. She was still doing the work while Fiona kept a running commentary. “When he started digging the new room for him and Joan, he made what he called a venting pipe and laid it in the floor under the fire-pit. Your sister helped him build it, in fact.”
“I saw the jig at the forge.” Jenna had told her all about the pipe building project. At first they had built a pipe like the one used in the water pump. Then they realized that the just had to keep the earth from caving in, so a half pipe would do. It drew air from above ground and the fire warmed it. In the opposite corner they could use bamboo to suck out the stinky air and send it up.
“He was the talk of the Pig and Toad, let me tell you. The old guard said it was a waste of good metal. ‘New breed of mole, that’s wot we got ‘ere,’ is what they said,” continued Fiona. “Then came the winter and Marlon and Joan all cozy and sweet smelling. That changed their tune, you better believe it.”
They heaved the beams upright and placed the ends in the footing. “Shift it over toward you,” Fiona instructed Rafe. “I need to leave plenty of space for Molly Foal to set up her loom. She’s apprenticing with me this winter. Her ma says she can’t teach her a thing, so she’s asked me to take her in hand. Personally I think she’d be better off working with your sister in the forge, or with her uncle Marlon. But Vi, Molly’s ma, has plans that won’t budge. And then wonders where Molly gets her stubborn streak.
Rafe saw a tall girl, with a strong chin, and a smooth brow approaching with a bundle of rope and shorter loom pieces. She did not look like the kind of girl to give her mother trouble, but more like someone who would welcome you to tea whatever time you showed up.
Fiona pointed to a place near the wall.“We won’t need those until we start warping the looms. Come on. I’ll stake you to a drink of the Pig and Toad has set up in winter quarters. You, too, Molly. Then you’ll set your loom up over there.”
The Pig and Toad had already moved underground to its winter quarters right. Tables and benches were set up near the weavers’ area. Rafe remembered picking up stories from the old guard of their days on whatever front they fought. She, Fiona, and the girl found seats. Fiona made introductions. “Rafe, have you been introduced to Molly?”
“Oh, I know who she is,” Molly started and instantly stopped as Rafe arched an eyebrow in her direction.
“No. I can’t say I’ve had the pleasure.”
“Rafiella, this is Molly Foal, my new apprentice. Molly, this is Rafiella Smith, Jole’s auntie.”
“They call you Ironsong, don’t they? Not Smith. I’ve heard all about you.” Rafe adjusted her first impression of the girl.
“In some circles, yes, they call me Ironsong. But not here.” Rafe sipped her ale, closing the conversation.
Only Molly paid no attention. “I heard a story about you and Grammy Heddle. Was that true?”
The girl would have to get a lot more subtle if she expected Rafe to fall for such a blatant trap. “I have no idea. People tell stories about anything.”
“Well, I heard that you’re not called Ironsong for no reason. I heard that one winter…” Rafe reached out with her fingers and touched the girl’s lips.
Rafe bent close. Her scowl became sincere. “A hunter doesn’t clatter through the forest announcing his presence, at least if she hopes to catch something.”
Molly sat back and did not reply, but neither did she leave. Rafe sat back, too, listening to Fiona catch her up, and did not forget the girl was there.