Homecoming

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Homecoming

Post by Ladybug on Mon Aug 06, 2012 6:18 pm

“Here we are, miss.” The cart slowed as the driver pulled on the horse’s reins. The mare whinnied and came to a gentle stop. He turned to his passenger with a puzzled expression. “What’s a lady such as yerself wantin’ with a little town like Aes?”

She didn’t look at him, continuing to stare straight ahead. Her gray eyes were cold and focused as she returned from her thoughts. “I’ve personal matters to see to here,” she said. Her fingers closed tightly around the steel cane lain across her lap. “Nothing to cause concern.”

“Suit yerself, miss,” said the driver. He leapt to his feet and held out a hand for her.
She gave him half a moment’s glance before scanning for a foothold. She located it and stepped down, but the drop was still enough that she didn’t want to risk it. She reluctantly gripped his hand and accepted his help to reach the ground where she immediately leaned on her cane. Her hand dipped into the pouch on her belt and closed around some coins, which she pressed into his hand.

The driver nodded, pocketing her coin. “Thanks, miss.” He paused, watching her walk to the back of the cart. “You never gave me a name.”

“Gaiuslass,” she replied, retrieving her bag. It had clearly seen better days. The fabric was nearly threadbare in the few places a patch hadn’t been hastily stitched, and the strap was nearly entirely knotted. She pulled it over her head, satisfied, and let it thump lightly against her hip.

“You pack light, Miss Gaiuslass.”

She nodded curtly and said no more. Leaning heavily on her cane, she walked along the narrow path, scarcely aware of the motion behind her as the cart rolled away. It was gone from her mind, replaced with a fog. Though she was determined to do her best to mask it, she’d be a liar were she to say that she was more than a little apprehensive about this trip. It had been years, after all...




“Back again, Gaius?” Ellis Doctor glanced up and smiled at the little girl, no older than six, in his arms. “’Ello, Ferra. Coughing again?”

The little girl nodded, her gray eyes as serious as her father’s. Gaius Miner adjusted his stance to hold her higher, and she rested her head against his chest. “I’m worried, Ellis. It’s not usually this bad.”

Ellis nodded and spread his hands. “It’s the winds. Look, Gaius, I’m not trying to tell you how to raise your girl, but if you keep a child this small around a coal mine, you’re going to have problems.” He held out his arms. Gaius gently transferred Ferra to him and stepped back. “All right, Ferra. Open wide.”

Gaius just shook his head, his light hair clinging to his brow. “If I could keep her out of the mine, I would. But what choice do I have?” He put his hand on his daughter’s shoulder, nodding to the metal collar around her neck, matching the one around his own. “We’ve several years to go.”

Ellis stood and walked to the counter, setting Ferra down. He brushed some of the coal dust from her cheek, noting the peppery streaks through her straw blond hair. He took some powders from a jar and dropped them into a glass of water, stirring it. He handed the mixture to the girl. “Drink that, lass. It will help.”

Gaius frowned. “But not fix?”

“If ‘twere in my power, ‘twould have been done. I’m no petitioner.” He turned to Ferra. “I want you to promise me you’ll get some exercise. I know the coughing and the long days make it hard, but you need to keep your legs strong.” He shot Gaius a glance. “Unless they’re letting the children do more than just sit around and wait till there’s a tiny crevice for their little arms.” Gaius shook his head.

Ferra just looked at him, her eyes wide as she drank the powdery liquid. She coughed, little to do with the coal dust. “This tastes awful.”

Ellis patted her on the head, smiling as she scowled at the act. “Sometimes the best things for us seem as the worst.”





She noted with mild dismay that her hand and flown to her collar with the memory, half-expecting to feel the cold steel of the band. She shuddered involuntarily and pulled her hand back. It had long since been removed, marking the end of her time in indentured servitude, but she doubted the scars would ever fade. Ferra touched the collar of her dress, sagging slightly in relief at the knowledge that the telltale marks were hidden from view.

Ferra began to wish that she’d been less prideful. An extra coin would have persuaded the driver to bring her closer, and she wasn’t hurting financially, not now. Yet the appeal of walking in unassisted had resonated so strongly as to override her normally logical mind, and she was regretting her rashness. She stopped a moment to catch her breath and give her legs a chance to rest.

She wanted to blame anyone but herself for them, but there came a point where circumstance only accounted for so much. Yes, the mining air had made her weak, and the labor had made her tired. Yet she’d had some free time that she could have dedicated to strengthening her body. It had worked for many of the mining town’s children; the region of Loculus was a rough and tumble territory, not at all known for producing long lines of reedy, poorly muscled laborers. No, the matter came down to the fact that she had never prized physical fitness as much as the others and let her condition worsen over time.

Although, it wasn’t as though this had turned out to be entirely without advantage...




“Gaius, for the last time, no. We can’t make exceptions.” Dashiell Foreman looked up at the taller man over his glasses. “She stays as she is.”

Gaius slammed his hand down on the desk. “Being in that pit is slowly killing my daughter! Aurea and I are fine. I have no intent of running out on our debt, but in the name of mercy, I beg you to give Ferra a different task!”

Ferra had all but tuned out the conversation, and her father’s words barely reached her ears. Her attention was instead on the decorative clock on the desk. Specifically, she was focused on the fact that decoration seemed to be its only purpose. In the several minutes they had stood at Foreman’s desk, she hadn’t heard it tick once, nor had she seen the pendulum budge the tiniest bit. Her father had told her that she shouldn’t speak unless spoken to, so she tugged on his trouser leg.

“Not now.”

“What would you suggest?” said Foreman. He gave the girl an appraising glance and turned around to look out the window. “She’d be underfoot in the kitchens. We’ve more than enough laundresses.”

Gaius fell silent. Ferra, sensing that nothing she did would be noticed, reached for the clock and sat on the ground, arranging her skirt to properly preserve her modesty and hide her legs. She ran her hands over the gilded metal, pursing her lips, finally turning it over and prying open the back.

“I’m not trying to make things difficult for your family. I need to put people where they are the most useful. A little thing like her isn’t fit for the lifting most things around here require. At least in the mines, she can be an extra set of eyes.” Foreman sighed. “I simply cannot make an exception for anyone who asks. If I set the precedent without real cause, there’d be none to work the mine.”

“That’s pure nonsense,” said Gaius. “Mining pays better than anything else an untrained laborer could manage hereabouts.”

Foreman turned to face him. “I advise you to recall to whom you speak.” His eyes fell on the desk, widening. “Where is my clock?”

Gaius looked around and spotted his daughter poking at the clock and quietly murmuring. “Ferra!”

Foreman leaned over his desk to peer at the girl. “What do you think you’re doing, little lady?”

Ferra looked up, raising an eyebrow. “It wasn’t working.” She poked at the exposed mechanism. “It’s loose here, so it didn’t turn when you wound it.”

Foreman and Gaius stared at the girl and then each other. “Ferra, sweetie, where did you learn to do that?”

She shrugged and snapped the cover back onto the clock. “It talked to me.” She smiled. “Listen. It’s ticking right now.”

Foreman gaped for a moment and cleared his throat. “Actually, Gaius, now that I think about it, there may be somewhere I can put her to better use.”







It was interesting. She hadn’t fully understood what had happened at the time, and even after her parents had figured it out, she wasn’t entirely certain she agreed. Despite hearing all her life about petitioning and the fey, she hadn’t been convinced at the time that that was what she had heard. Her family had never been a follower of that religion though she did understand the important role the fey played in day-to-day life. It had simply seemed odd that one would choose that moment to reveal itself, especially given what she did hear of them – that they were incorrigible pranksters. It was in one’s best interest to give them due respect and stay out of their way as best as able. No mortal could truly fathom their motives, nor would they wish it.

Midday had arrived, Ferra noted with some surprise. She hadn’t made near the progress she had hoped she would by now. If the terrain was remotely as she remembered, she had yet to reach the creek that marked the midway point between Aes and the crossroads she had left. She hadn’t thought her stamina to be that poor.

Her pace slowed somewhat as she kept her gaze down on the road to avoid squinting in the bright sunlight. Dust arose as she walked, a byproduct of a long stretch without rain. Ferra sighed. That was a sure sign that Aes would be as dusty as she remembered. So much for retaining her dignity. On the other hand, uncontrollable coughing could be as good a voucher as any for her identity.

She shook her head. That was then. Her lungs were much better now, especially once she’d managed to scrape enough coin together to afford a petitioner’s services, even a half-trained journeyman like the one she’d met. He hadn’t been able to fully rectify her condition, so her legs had stayed weak, but she could breathe much more easily now. And in her mind, that was the far more pressing concern. She’d never had a strong frame and frankly didn’t see the need for one. She’d always managed without just fine.




Ferra grunted slightly as she slid between the walls of the machine. Richard Tinker slid the toolbox in after her, along with words of encouragement. Once out of the narrow passage and under the gears, she sat down and looked up, taking it in.

“Can you see it, girl?”

She nodded before remembering he couldn’t exactly see her. “Something’s stuck up there. Looks like some wood.”

A chuckle came from outside. “Sounds about right. That storm knocked a bit of the roof free. Can you reach it?”

Looking up, she stretched out her arm, weaving it through the inert machinery. Her fingers easily brushed against the offending block. “Yes.” She paused. “Mr. Tinker, is the machine off?”

“Yep. We always check that before we let a fixer go in. You’re fine.”

Ferra sighed in relief. She took a deep breath and reached up, bracing her off hand on the mechanism as she eased the blockage free. She looked it over for a moment before nodding to herself. Squatting down, she pushed the toolbox out ahead of her before squeezing back through the gap.

“Got it?”

She nodded. “It was easy,” she said with a small smile.

Tinker chuckled. “I’ll say. Normally, we’d need to take this here panel off to get in there.” He paused and looked her over. “I wonder why Foreman’s never thought of sending kids in before.” He smiled. “You like working with machines?” Ferra nodded. “Then I wager we’ll have no problem keeping you on repair duty. Better than the mines, isn’t it?”

Ferra smiled broadly.





Beautiful. Ferra sighed as she caught herself just before falling. With a grunt, she freed her cane from the hole it had found and wedged itself in. She peered down at the path to inspect it. Snakes, more than likely. It was too small for a foxopher burrow, and they tended to stay off the beaten path when they could. She paused a moment before she continued on her way as she tried to recall what kind of snakes called the region their home. She didn’t think any of them were venomous, but she walked with a carefully measured step from that point on.

Her forehead was dripping with sweat from the summer sun by the time the skyline of Aes, such as it was, came into view. It wasn’t a large town, just a small mining community about two hours away from the coast. The most notable feature against the gathering clouds in the sky was the three-story communal barracks which housed those unfortunate enough to find themselves saddled with a contract of indentured servitude and a collar to match.

Her default expression of neutrality slipped into mild dismay, and she scanned the buildings for a distraction. Oh! They’d managed to repair the temple to Earthfury and Farseer. She’d wondered about that. It did seem strange, though. Who’d have thought that one could be gone for over ten years and find so little change upon returning?




"You done yet, Ferra?"

"No, I am not." Ferra sighed and bit her lip. This was well and truly jammed, that was certain. Rust buildup would do that. She picked up the screwdriver, a poor tool for the job but more apt than anything else in the meager kit Foreman was insistent was enough, and began scraping away at the flakes.

"You know, if you hurry, we can get first dibs on luncheon!"

"I know, Greg," called Ferra through gritted teeth. In a way, it was her own fault that she had to work with the six-year-old. Foreman had been impressed with how well she handled herself around mechanical problems and decided that any child could manage just as well.

He was wrong. Greg Haroldson was proof of that if nothing else was. He was one of the lucky third of workers who did not have a debt to work off, and his parents put him to work in order to let them both hold down a job. He had no motivation beyond what his attention span allowed.

Chunk.

That wasn't good. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement. "Greg, you turned it off, right?"

"I think so!"

Ferra paused. "Think?!"

More movement. She was not going to be able to move free of the machine in time, not with her legs. She pulled her hand back and flinched, turning her head to avert her eyes.

She felt a tug.

Her ponytail had gotten caught. Her breath caught in her throat, and she shut her eyes. The gears groaned more loudly as they tried to turn.

"Repeat after me."

"What?" She opened her eyes and saw nothing.

The voice whispered again, quiet and gentle, and forming no words she recognized. Swallowing her fear as best she could, she repeated the syllables carefully.

To her surprise, the machine ceased its grinding and groaning and fell silent. She carefully reached up and freed her hair and stepped back. "It jammed?"

The disembodied voice chuckled. "In a fashion. Have you finished cleaning it?" Ferra nodded. "Then get yourself clear." As soon as she was through the access panel, the voice continued, "This will undo what you did."

Ferra frowned. "But I don't want the rust back."

"The other thing." The voice made a sound as if clearing its throat - rather pointlessly, to her mind - and issued forth another string of gibberish.

As Ferra repeated the words and listened to the machine roar back to life, something clicked. "You were the voice in the clock."

"Hm?"

"Papa says the fey sometimes talk to people and teach them petitioning." She turned to the direction of the voice and raised an eyebrow.

"That's true."

"Then I suppose you've a name?"

Another laugh. "You may call me Keklantidarkot."

Ferra hesitated, running the long name over in her mind a few times. "Well, Keklantidarkot, what makes me so special that you help me not once but twice?"

The air where she watched shimmered, and a small cloud of gray mist appeared. "In truth? Not a thing."

Ferra scowled as the mist faded into nothingness. "That's not an answer!" She sat on the ground and fumed, still pouting when Greg returned with Mr. Tinker.





She supposed that was the point in time that she had decided that no matter how much she came to rely on petitioning, no matter how strong the argument for doing so was, she would never ever worship the fey. They were far too capricious to not be dangerous, and she liked her own faith just fine.

The streets were as busy as could be expected from the afternoon. Aes had never been overly crowded; nearly the entire population worked long hours of hard labor. As a result, the majority of people she saw on the streets were housewives, merchants, and a few tourists, much like herself. No one paid her much mind, save for a few looks of pity as their eyes glanced over her cane. Ferra tightened her grip on the crutch and forced herself not to glower. She detested pity and had no need for it.

Ferra pushed it to the back of her mind as she approached the barracks and hesitantly opened the door.

A man was seated at a reception counter. Upon hearing the door swing open, he set down his newspaper and swung his legs from their perch on the countertop. He smiled at her. “Afternoon, miss. What can I help you with?”

Ferra inhaled deeply. “I need to see Gaius and Aurea Miner.”

He arched an eyebrow. “Beg pardon, miss, but they ain’t here anymore.”




Ferra screamed, a wordless cry of frustration, and hurled the wrench at the ground. Even to her eleven-year-old mind, it was obvious this contraption was ruined beyond all possible repair. Yet Foreman insisted it be fixed. Mr. Tinker had gone off to try and talk some sense into him, leaving Ferra behind.

She sighed, rubbing at her temples. It was all so pointless. She was to do this for the rest of her life, forever, no matter what her parents said. A few years, a few months more, it didn’t matter. It felt an eternity, and it amounted to nothing in the end. They’d of course have to stay a few years past, just earning enough to get by on for travel. And a few years would lead to a few more. And a few more. She saw her life unfolding before her on an endless path of coal-stained bleakness. Before she was aware, a tear ran down her face, streaking through the oil and grime.

“I’ve seen aardvark mice with shorter faces.”

She recognized the voice, if not the animal mentioned. “Kek.”

A familiar mist shimmered into view before again shifting, taking the form of a tiny songbird, which alighted on her knee. “Cheer up, lass.”

Ferra snarled, “And why should I want to do that? There’s naught here for me, and I’ve nowhere to go even if I could leave!” She grabbed onto the collar with both hands and tugged. “It won’t come free, and anywhere I go, it’s a sign I’m to be brought straight back with a fine added to my debt.”

Keklantidarkot whistled and flew to her ear. “And who told you that?”

“Mr. Foreman himself. Besides, everyone knows about the runaway tax.”

“No!” The voice reached a higher frequency than Ferra had thought she could hear. She cringed. “I mean, who told you this thing won’t come off?”

Ferra blinked and turned to gape at the fey. “You can get the key?”

“Nah,” he chuckled. “Who needs one of them?”

“I do,” said Ferra, deadpan. She crossed her arms. “It’s locked well tight.”

Keklantidarkot grinned, an odd look for the bird. “And what is a lock but a machine? You do work with machines, don’t you, Ferra?”

Ferra hesitated and stared at the fey. “You can open it?”

“Why would I do that?” laughed Keklantidarkot.

She felt herself flush with anger. “Y-you just said-”

“I’ll let you have the fun!” He took off and flew a few laps around her head before landing beside her ear. “Grip either side of the lock and repeat after me.”

“All right...”

Keklantidarkot whispered a string of noise into her ear, and Ferra sat in silence a moment, running the words over in her mind, mouthing them without speaking. She closed her eyes and mouthed them again, almost able to picture their purpose. Finally, she put her voice to the murmuring and pulled on the collar.

It fell away, a harmless necklace. Ferra simply stared at the silvery band as it lay uselessly on the dusty wooden floor. Almost without realizing it, she ran her fingers over her neck, amazed to feel flesh rather than steel. Her lip trembled, and she choked back a sob.

“Ferra?”

She swallowed. “I’m free...”

“Yes, about that.” Keklantidarkot flew to meet her eye to eye. “I highly advise running. I rather doubt your manager would be pleased with what you’ve done.”

Dismay colored her features. “My parents?”

“Are going to be in nowhere near the trouble you will if you’re seen without that. Now go!”

Ferra stood slowly, unsteadily, and ran out the door as fast as her legs could carry her.





“What do you mean, they aren’t here anymore?” asked Ferra, putting up a valiant fight to hide her fear. “Did something happen to them?” Surely she’d have heard.

“Oh, aye, if you want t’ put it that way.” He shrugged. “They paid their contract off quite some years ago. Moved t’ the outskirts o’ town.” He jerked his thumb to the south. “Ain’t sure exactly where, but I imagine someone thereabouts can help.”

Ferra nearly melted in relief. She nodded and turned to leave.

“Out o’ nosiness, what’s your business with them?”

“My business lies with them and is none of yours,” Ferra said, rather coldly. She sighed and added, “It’s a personal matter.”

He shrugged again and slouched back in his chair. “Eh, no skin off my nose either way. Only...”

“Only what?” asked Ferra. Her patience was waning.

“Calm down, miss. You look like them’s all, and they’d a daughter what vanished a long time ago.”

Ferra’s mouth was a thin line. “How very fascinating.”

“Ha, guess it’s stupid anyhow. She’s dead. No way a shrimpy little waif like her made it out o’ the woods on her own.” He shook his head. “Shame, really.”

Keeping her face carefully neutral, Ferra turned to leave before he could make any more connections. It was highly unlikely anything would come of her being recognized, the family debt being paid in full, but it was hard to shake emotional memories; the last time she had seen Aes or been anywhere near it, she had been a small child convinced that her life would be effectively over were anyone to catch her in her flight. She was twenty-six now, and it was still nigh-impossible to get around that line of thought.

She sighed deeply and began trekking across town to the housing district the desk clerk had pointed out.




Ferra grunted in the early morning light. She had no idea where she was, having spent the rest of the day alternately running and resting. She cursed her legs for their inability to carry her further, and she doubted she was far enough from Aes to be truly safe. She was tired and hungry, and she had no idea what plants were safe to eat. This was beginning to seem like an incredibly stupid idea after all. She pushed herself to her feet and, wobbling a bit, set off, trying to ignore the rumbling in her stomach.

They day was warm, so that was one less thing to worry about. There hadn’t been time to return home and grab her coat. She’d be in no danger of freezing for a few months at least. Ferra pushed through the bushes, watching out for the few dangerous plants she could identify on sight and taking care to avoid them. She looked up at the sky and shaded her eyes with a hand. She wondered how long she’d be able to keep this up. Maybe it was time to stick near the road; with her survival skills, there was a chance she’d somehow double back and end up right back at the gates of Aes.

It wasn’t long before she found the dusty road, and she kept to the ditch beside it. Getting run down by a horse would, to say the least, ruin this whole gambit for freedom. She hummed to herself as she walked, an old Trausti folk tune her mother used to sing as a lullaby. It was one of the few remnants of the homeland the family had kept with them when they crossed the sea. Thinking on it now, she found it odd they had brought as much with them as they had if times were really as hard as her father liked to say. Being too young to remember for herself, she also wondered just how hard things had been that indentureship was truly a better option. At high noon, her legs felt rubbery, and she sat to rest, rubbing them through the coarse fabric of her trousers.

It was this detour that marked the difference between success and failure.

She’d sat for about ten minutes getting the feeling back into her legs when a cart rolled to a stop beside her. A man dismounted and climbed into the ditch. “Are you all right, dear?”

Ferra nodded unconvincingly, peering at the newcomer. He looked to be older than her father, though not by much. Had his clothes been dirtier, she’d have immediately assumed him to be a miner due to the muscular frame he possessed. The lines in his face suggested smiles and friendliness. Nevertheless, she cringed slightly away from him. There was no telling what could happen.

“Where are your parents? Surely they’d not let a little thing like you wander off on her own like this.”

The worst question he could ask. Ferra froze and felt her eyes widen. If she didn’t convince him now that she had a reason for being here, she had a feeling he’d guess the truth and take her right back to Aes. She swallowed and stammered, “They’re...they won’t be looking for me.”

Sympathy colored his features, and he put a hand over his mouth. “Oh. Oh, dear.”

It took a moment for Ferra to realize what she’d accidentally suggested, and she honestly had no idea how to respond to this.

“Where are you going?”

She shrugged.

“Have you any other family?”

She shook her head.

He sighed and held out a hand. “Would you like to come with me?” He paused. “I...could use an apprentice if you’re willing.”

Ferra stared at him in disbelief. After a moment, she managed, “This isn’t mine work, is it?”

The man barked out a laugh. “Oh, skies, no! The name’s Irving Smith.”

She sat in silence a long moment. She knew little about smithing, just that the boys in town who worked for their blacksmith were a lot stronger than she. What would happen if she agreed and failed to meet his expectations? Another thought struck her: was this mere pity? Anger welled up in the back of her mind before her rational brain spoke: Have you really a choice? She smiled and held out a hand. “I’m Ferra.”





That was the last charity she had ever let herself accept from anyone. Ferra hated the idea of living on chance more now than she ever would have without experiencing it.

She was very glad to note that she was heading away from the mines and the machinery held nearby. Even now, years later, she doubted she could maintain her composure were she to find herself near them. They held too many bad memories, not just of days her coughing had made it difficult to breathe, let alone walk, but also of people less lucky than she who had not survived the conditions in which they worked. As it was, she felt a shiver run down her spine at the mere thought of returning.

Her cane clicked against the cobblestones, and her legs began to ache again. She really should have paid the driver to bring her in closer. There was no one here to impress; no one here would know what a major accomplishment it was for her to move so well unassisted. Too late to do anything about that now, though. She tightened her grip on her cane and leaned on it a bit more heavily. She was into the residential area now. Not much farther. Her steely eyes scanned the area for anyone she could ask directions of.

Someone saw her first. “Need help, miss?”

Ferra turned. An older woman waved from her garden, hand covered with dirt. “I was told I could find Gaius and Aurea Miner here.”

The woman nodded. “Aye, about three doors that way. Theirs’d be the one with the bluebell wreath on the door.” She wiped her hand on her apron. “You family?”

“Oh. Yes,” Ferra said, blinking. Smith had never pried too much into her background, and he seemed to have discouraged it in others. She’d appreciated it, but she was quite unused to people asking personal questions.

“I thought so. You look like Gaius.” She smiled.

Ferra nodded her thanks and continued on. She soon found herself standing before the telltale wreath and raised a hand to knock.

She froze.

What if they turned her away? It had been fifteen years, after all, and she’d made no contact with them at all in that time. She had what she thought was a good reason for that, but would they see it the same way? Would they want anything to do with her?

She closed her eyes, inhaled deeply, and rapped on the door.




“...Any questions?” Irving set down the bellows and smiled at the girl.

Ferra’s face was carefully blank. “Not about the tools, sir.”

“Oh?”

She crossed her arms. “You know I can’t do the training to be a proper blacksmith. You need to be strong for that. I’m not.”

Irving tapped his chin. “Well, maybe you just need to work at it. Strength doesn’t come overnight, Ferra.”

“If it worked that way, they would have left me in the mine!” She didn’t see any point in dancing around that. Irving had jumped to the conclusion that she was an orphan whose family had been recently released from indentureship, and it answered enough questions. It wasn’t as though she could do anything about the scars the band had left on her neck.

Chuckling, Irving crouched down beside her. “Well, what would you suggest? I do intend to work you, girl. You yourself said you don’t want pity, and I respect that.”

She looked down at the floor. “I’m not too sure what I can do aside from sweeping up. You don’t have much in the way of machinery, and that’s all I can really do.”

He smiled and patted her shoulder, drawing back when she shrugged away. “Right, don’t like touching. Anyway, I’ve something in mind for you.”

Ferra looked at him, a single eyebrow raised. “Housekeeper?”

“Not quite.” He reached out his hand and said a few alien syllables in a clear voice. From its home on a hanging hook, an iron poker detached itself and sailed to his hand. He handed her the tool. “More in line with your thinking?”

Eyes wide as saucers, Ferra gaped at him. “You’re a petitioner?”

Irving nodded. “And you can be too, if you’re willing to learn.” He tapped the poker. “You’d be surprised how much knowing a bit of metal and fire can help out a humble smith.”

“Of course I want to learn!” said Ferra. She paused a moment and added, “I could learn about machinery as well?”

The old smith scratched his head. “Not sure what gave you that idea.”

“Well, there’s a lot of different kinds, right?”

Irving nodded. “Air, fire, water, earth, metal, flora, fauna, health, textile, time, weather, chaos.” He ticked them off on his left hand, turning it over each time he ran out of fingers. “Those are the twelve recognized schools. But chaos is banned.” He shrugged. “No machinery that I’ve ever heard of.” He looked at Ferra; she nodded understanding. Irving smiled again and grunted as he stood. “So how about you check that we’ve enough wood to keep the fire going so I can work on some normal tools. We’ll start your real training tomorrow.”

Ferra stood unsteadily and made her way to the woodpile out back. A familiar voice laughed in her ear.

“Well on your way, eh?”

She didn’t need to look to know there was a silvery bird perched on the pile. “Kek.”

“Yes?”

Ferra sighed. “Are you a metal spirit?”

Keklantidarkot laughed. “Of course not! My name’s far more elegant than theirs!”

She regarded him with a flat expression. “You’re not metal, but you showed me how to work with it. Right.”

The bird landed on her head and pecked at her. Ferra rolled her eyes; the incorporeal body meant she felt only a mild static charge. “I showed you how to work with machines.”

“There are no machine petitioners,” said Ferra. She reached for a log. “Mr. Smith just told me that.”

“Bah,” said Keklantidarkot. He moved lightly to the log. “I’ve your answer if you wish.”

“To what?” She reached for a second and third log, and carefully balanced them as the fey bird flew to her shoulder to dodge them.

“Well, didn’t you want to know why I decided to help you of all people?”

She stopped dead in her tracks. “Why?”

“Your petitioning works because you ask the fey for aid, and they tell you the solution, correct?”

“So I’ve heard.” She shifted the logs again. “You want to make a flower grow, you ask a flora fey. That’s it, right?”

“Sure,” said the fey in that tone Ferra hated. It was the tone adults used when they thought children were too stupid to understand something but didn’t want to hurt their feelings. “But let’s say you knew there was no such thing as a flora fey.”

“But there-“

“Let’s say there’s no such thing.” Keklantidarkot sighed. “You wouldn’t listen to it, would you?”

“Probably not,” ceded Ferra.

“Well, you people know there aren’t any machinery fey. So most won’t listen. And that’s all that makes you special.”

Ferra gave the bird a flat look. “You singled me out because I was too ignorant to know any better.”

“Or too young to be so close-minded. Fact is, you listened, and you did something special with that.”

She just shook her head and walked inside, shrugging the bird away. She didn’t understand fey, and she never would. Kek’s parting words did little to comfort her:

“Our business is not yet concluded, Ferra Sorcere.”

Ferra turned to correct the spirit on her name, but it had gone.





There was an endless moment before the door swung open. Ferra was almost certain her heart stopped, so great were her nerves. As it was, she had nearly lost feeling in her fingers from gripping her cane so tightly. She steeled herself and attempted to keep her expression neutral.

Gaius Miner was much as she remembered him, despite the changes brought on by age. His pale hair was streaked with gray, and his face, thin like her own, was wrinkled and drawn. He looked tired, most noticeably. He wore as simple clothing as ever with no effort to hide the scars left by the band. “Can I he-“ He trailed off mid-word as his gaze focused on the person at his door.

Ferra finally made herself speak. “Hello, Father.”

He stood a long moment, transfixed with shock before reaching out a hand to touch her shoulder. Seemingly convinced she wasn’t a trick of the light, he pulled her into a tight embrace. “You’re alive.” He pulled his head back. “Aurea! Come quick!”

“What is it?” called Aurea, walking quickly through the cottage. “Gaius, is something wrong?”

Gaius turned slightly without releasing his daughter. “Look who’s here!”

“Ferra!” cried Aurea, running up to join the hug. She, like Gaius, had changed little save for some gray hairs. It was an odd comfort for her to take, but Ferra was glad of it. So much was different now that it was refreshing to have something familiar to cling to. The three of them stood there for nearly a full minute before Aurea finally pulled back first. “Well, don’t just stand out there. Come on inside; I’ll get tea.”



Her parents were an ideal audience. As she told them of her escape and subsequent life, they made no interruption and in fact listened in rapt attention. Her mother, in fact, had not released a hold on her hand since she’d returned to the table with the tea.

“...and Mr. Smith decided that I had long since reached journeyman status as far as he was concerned, and if I wanted to study petitioning further, I would need to travel to Pharetra. That’s actually where I intend to go from here,” finished Ferra. She carefully picked up her mug with her free hand and sipped.

Aurea patted her hand. “A petitioner and blacksmith. You have gone up in the world.” She smiled. “It’s good to have you back, even if it is just for a short while.”

“Aye.” Gaius reached over to pat her shoulder. “Not a complaint, mind, but why now?”

Ferra averted her gaze as she freed her hand. She reached into her belt pouch and retrieved a fairly large sack, which she set on the table. It clinked and jingled. “It took me some years to earn this. I would not have felt right returning without it, and after that came the idea to study petitioning...” she trailed off.

Gaius looked at his daughter quizzically as he tipped the bag open onto the table. Out spilled a cascade of gold and silver. He looked from the pile to his wife and back to his daughter. “Ferra, what-“

“I’ve calculated a miner’s salary for fifteen years plus considerable interest. That should cover the portion of the debt I left you.” She did not meet their eyes. “I hope you can forgive me.”

Her parents held a silent conversation with their eyes before Aurea spoke. “You take that back this instant. You’ve no need to buy forgiveness from anyone. Our debt’s long squared away, dear.”

Ferra looked up. “Are you certain?”

Gaius nodded. “We’re well enough off now. You’re the one who should put that to use.”

“But surely you resent having to work off my share!”

Aurea shook her head. “Ferra, you’re our daughter. The only thing that matters right now is that you’re here and you’re safe.”

“We could never resent you,” said Gaius.

For once, Ferra let her practiced stoicism lapse. As relief crashed down on her, she felt tears run freely down her cheeks. Both parents immediately moved to embrace her, and she held to them tightly, feeling a comfort she hadn’t felt since she was a child. Aurea stroked her daughter’s hair gently, and Gaius, at a nod from his wife, stepped back to let them have a moment.


Ferra finished tying her hair back in a hasty ponytail as she limped to the table for breakfast. The sun had not yet risen, and her parents seemed surprised to see her awake.

“Still keeping a mine schedule?” asked Gaius with a smile.

“Never lost it,” replied Ferra.

Aurea set a plate before each of them before settling down with her own. “Are you certain you have to leave today, love?”

Ferra nodded. “Pharetra’s quite far, and I’d like to be there before the weather turns.”

Gaius smiled at her. “Just remember that you’re always welcome here.”

“You don’t think I can do it.”

“What?” said Gaius. “Of course you can. We’d just like to hear from you again this decade.”

Ferra turned pink. “I’ll write. That’s a promise.”

“We’ll be waiting,” said Aurea with a smile.
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