The Barren Time
It began in the barren time before the spring. The limbs stood empty on the trees and the furrows coursed undisturbed through the fields and Ryn Batyst worked long at the forge and could not sleep. A master, now, he did not need to begin before dawn or labor long into the night, but sent his apprentices away regardless and worked the bellows for himself. He toiled until his eyes and hands and feet all tingled with fatigue. Then he would go to his solitary bunk and trace with his eyes the slowly webbing crack in the whitewashed ceiling of his home. He could not say why he could not sleep, but was for a while content to rest like this.
Then one night he heard someone being beaten in the alley behind his house. The curses and thumps came with the brutal regularity that meant a man was going to die. So he opened his only door unto the darkness of the city and went out into it. The air of Ariel hung hushed and still around him, because before spring came in earnest there was only the calm and gentle warming of the land. In the district of Market-home, the air also held the pungency of the urine the tanners used, as well as the cloying sweetness of the slops of the last supper the butcher gave his pigs. But Ryn did not really notice these aromas, both because he had smelt them for most of his thirty-five years and because when he turned the second corner of his home he saw that the man kicking a beggar to death was wearing the jade slacks and unbuttoned jacket of an off-duty Temple guard.
Others he could have intimidated without effort. In his entire life he had only met three men taller than himself and none heavier with muscle – and now, he admitted to himself, also with some fat. He knew his bulk in the darkness would almost fill the narrow alleyway and so as he stepped forward he weighed in his hand the mattock he had picked up, almost unconsciously, before he closed the door behind him. But the Temple was known to trust its own authority.
Still, the guard, seeing Ryn’s motion, looked up, and turned toward the smith a face pale and smooth and arrogant. Ryn almost laughed. The off-duty man could not yet have completed a full year of his first employment. The Temple of the History of the Profusion was taking them young these days.
“You should have gone and gotten your friends,” he told the boy. “So that they could say he assaulted you first.”
The young guard, perhaps seventeen or eighteen, glanced back and forth between the whimpering form beneath him and the shadow whose shoulders nearly spanned the alleyway, clearly measuring his chances. Instinctively, he grabbed at his waist for the scabbard that would have held his sword, but which the Temple would not have permitted him to carry off-duty.
“Or so they could say I did,” Ryn added, stepping forward so that the youth could see by his torchlight the hard lines of the smith’s face and the bend in his oft-broken nose and the hair and beard that yet had in them no trace of gray. He hefted again the mattock in his hand.
With that, the boy turned and left without picking up his torch. And Ryn Batyst knelt beside a cringing beggar and began wandering the streets of Ariel at night.
Polec Buros, the tinsmith, caught him nodding off over lunch. Like many insomniacs, Ryn Batyst found that sleep surprised him at other nuisance times of day. He had just sat down behind his shop’s counter. “My prentices chased me off,”’ he said, jerking upright, his gaze darting around the room. There were no customers waiting, only Buros.
“You deserved it,” his friend said, removing a broom so he could sit down on the stool opposite Batyst. Polec was brown-skinned and short and wiry and fifteen years older than the blacksmith. He was also married and had three children grown and working throughout Ariel. “They say you’ve been a bear the last few weeks. And they need the experience.”
Batyst massaged his forehead, eyes, and temples. “You know how it is. You say to one of them, do this. To another, do that. Soon you have nothing for yourself. I came out to mind the store.”
Pol, as Batyst always called him, nodded. “And that’s the way it’s supposed to be. Anyway, I came by to put something on your table.”
Ryn raised his eyebrows.
“I want you to run for Head this year. It’s only a week away.”
“Korik has it this this term. The silversmith.” The oldest Guild man who hadn’t was expected to step up to serve the next eight years. Voting was a formality. It was how you began earning the money for retirement.
“Word is he’s not that eager, because he has enough to go out on his own. Besides, you have him on experience. He spent those five years in prison.”
Batyst shook his head. “All those Temple contracts. Same thing put him in jail. Can’t hold that against him.”
Pol was silent for a moment, then met his eyes. “That’s exactly what I expect you to do.”
Ryn drew a breath. “Not this again. I shoe their horses! And they arrest a farmer, it’s my irons they put him in.”
His friend shrugged. “Not to two-thirds of your business. Not enough for a house in Sepira by the shore. I’m telling you, Ryn, you’ll be a walk-in.”
“I’m uneducated. It’s not my world. I’d be bored. Maybe when I’m too old to be good for anything else. You think I nod off now, sit me in front of a table and books and candles.”
Pol shrugged more elaborately. “You think you’ll be the first brickhead to sit that chair? By the Void, half of us never even finished Temple. The Guild wants you, Ryn. Every smith respects you. And besides, I don’t think you’ll be bored. I think something else is going to happen.”
Ryn raised his eyebrows again. “What’s that?” he asked.
“I think you’ll do the best you can for those you’ve worked beside. Because the Guild is all you have. And then I think you’ll be able to sleep at night.”
As the first buds crept out onto the limbs of the trees, Ryn Batyst stepped out into the streets of Ariel. He nodded silently to both Temple and City guards and avoided the Flats, where the thieves’ gangs ran, because they could make things difficult for the shop. But, exhausted, he prevented a holy scribe from raping a seamstress on her way home and once stopped a mob of youth from knifing the smallest among them. Another time he sighed and beat senseless a thug who was trying to light the ironmonger’s works on fire.
Then one night he descended the thousand steps of Ariel, the city of the Faiths, to walk the docks. As with his sleeplessness, he could not explain why he left the city. But as he went he thought about his speech. He had already spoken privately to each of the other master smiths, just as Pol had arranged. But now Ryn would address the next meeting, as would Korik, before everyone tendered their vote. Even a walk-in could still embarrass himself and he had never spoken to more men together than his four apprentices.
He thought so heavily about what he was going to say that he did not realize when his feet left the soft sodden wood of the boardwalk. Suddenly he stood on cool black earth and smelled the tilled soil of the farms at the base of the cliffs that upheld the city. And he went on, though it meant he would not be back to the shop by dawn. He had not left Ariel since he was a boy and now walked the hedgerows and cart-paths that lined the river banks and looked up at the stars, more visible here away from the torchlights of the streets.
It seemed strange to think that humans had come from there, up in all that cold and dark, out amidst the Void. But as crossed a bridge he remembered his Temple classes, where he had seen the Historian’s machines, the books that were only one glowing page that somehow changed itself. And of course as a boy he had dreamed of taking in hand one of the quickswords the veilmen wore, or putting on that metal armor that flowed like water but let you punch through walls.
He couldn’t, of course. The only metal he would ever wield was the steel he forged himself. But he knew enough about the Profusion to understand how they might look up at the stars and feel them calling. He was also called. The streets of Ariel sang to him, and now the valley, too, though the verse was thick with silence. On the river’s far side, as he walked he found himself climbing away from the cultivated lands and up toward the naked hills that lined the base of the mountains that encircled the city. The night was fading fast, but the valley was much longer than it was wide, and soon his legs burned and his lungs ached from climbing among the scattered boulders. He did not know where he was going. But his sense of urgency increased.
The ground of the hills was uneven and dry and hard until it suddenly was not. The soil, probably still partly frozen, nonetheless softened and first let one of his feet sink in –and then, before Ryn could stop himself, also the other. He found first that he could not remove them, no matter how hard he pulled. Then he realized he was in to his calves and sinking fast. When he reached down and back with his hands, he lost his balance and found that there was no firm ground to grab. And when his chest sank into the earth, he discovered that it made no difference whether he struggled against the pull or not. Finally, as the earth crept up his neck, he briefly debated whether to gulp his breath in case he found the bottom or to shout in case a farmer was walking his fields before sunrise.
As he often had, Ryn Batyst opted for silence. The earth swallowed him regardless.