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Iron Quill - Ivory; And So the Story Goes


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And So the Story Goes

Words: 1750 Ingredients: All


This isn’t the way it’s supposed to go.


You marry a baker instead of a fisherman so that you don’t have to stand with the other wives on the docks as the iron sea swallows your husband’s eyes. You marry for love, not the promise of riches or wonders, not for station. And you work that love like kneading bread, until it can stretch across arguments and lean times, until it can spring back from the heavy snows of the New England winter and keep rising against curfews and gunfire in the streets.


You write the story of the two of you together and you’re happy. For three years you’re happy. And on sunday you decided you were pregnant, that it had been long enough since you had bled, that there was no other excuse for the recurring nausea. Your name is Mary and you feel whole, blessed and at peace.


The sky is turning, ice blue and shattering cold. Hoarfrost creeps around the edges of the window and you linger over a cup of tea, scraping the last crystals of honey from the bottom of the mug. Your eyes are drawn down the stone path that winds from the cottage to the cliff edge and follows it down into the city. You should take it, Bel needs you in the shop. But the stillness is so complete that even rising from your seat at the window is a challenge. And you’re so tired, it must be the baby, working hard, growing.


The lighthouse stands out on the edge of the cliff, an ivory tower crowned with a bloody eye. Generations of dour men built it by hand, and maintained it faithfully and now the crimson-coated thugs have moved in. Strangers from far away, with strange accents and itchy trigger fingers.


“It will be alright,” you croon to the spark of a child, “If I believe anything, it’s that. No matter how dark it gets.”


You push yourself upright and pat out your skirts. You wrap a shawl over your face and lace up your boots. The heavy leather is cracked, you’ll need to rub it with fat tonight, and leave it in front of the stove.


As you are about to leave there’s a knocking on the door. Who on earth…? You open it, and a scarecrow of a man tumbles in. He must be in his sixties though he looks much older.


“Is my son home? Does he still live…” The man blinks to bring you into focus, “You’re the Clemens’ girl, Mary?”


“Cotton?” Each season, when the ice retreats from the bay, men leave in fishing boats, whaling ships. Some never return. Bel’s father, everyone thought, had been claimed by the sea in a midsummer storm almost twenty years ago. But the man is standing before you, or at least the bones of the man. Wind and salt and ice have worn away the boisterous red-faced man who danced on the table at the harvest feast, and there’s fear now in eyes that knew only laughter.


He nods at you, his joints creak like raw timbers.


“Come in, sit. Bel’s in town, I was just about to… I’ll stoke up the fire.” You hurry to the stove and load it with firewood. The winter has already been long and soon you’ll be burning the sour smelling coal the Guild ships in.


“Thank you, kind girl…” With frozen fingers he’s barely able to shuck off his frostbound greatcoat before collapsing into an armchair by the fire, he lets his bag go and it crashes to the ground, “My boots if you…”


“Of course.” You pull them off, his feet are swollen and his socks molding. You strip the socks as well and lay them on top of the stove where they sizzle and steam.


“Ah, that’s better.” Cotton seems to slip away, then his eyes pop open, “Did my boy marry you then?”


“Yes,” you answer. You don’t mention the baby.


“Good, good…” And then he’s gone, snoring lightly.


You tuck a blanket around his shoulders and set salt-pork and bread on a plate by his elbow. You want to stay with him, but Bel needs help with the books and there’s always something to buy, beg for, or mend.


The wind bites deep as you head into town. You bow your head and bear it.


There are an unusual number of people on the street, most of them villagers you’ve known since you were a girl; broad backed women and weathered men in olive and brown and grey. But there are at least a dozen of the robin-breasted Guild Guards stationed at intersections, and more running messages from the docks to the tower and back.


You can always tell a Guilder with somewhere to be, they wave their yellow couriers scrip at everyone they pass. It’s an apology to some, an explanation to others, but a “Get the hell out of my way,” to most.


The bakery is shallow, the counter just a few feet from the door, with racks of cooling breads and noodles and pastries behind it, and behind them the great beehive oven. Bel is sweating, silhouetted by the open fire box.


“Hallo, love!” You call.


He wipes his brow with a rag he keeps tucked in his belt and smiles, “Busy day.”


“Looks like it. Who’s come in?”


“No one we know, a tramp steamer flying the Ram dropped anchor overnight. Then two hours ago the tower erupts and the Guilders start swarming all over. They’re trying to act like everything’s under control, but something has them stirred up.” He cocks his head, “What’s wrong dear?” He must see something in your face.


“I hope it’s a coincidence, but there’s something I have to tell you…”


All things considered, he takes the news stoically. A series of emotions wash across his face like waves chasing the tide. “We do nothing out of the ordinary,” he says at last, “If they’re looking for him they can’t know he’s here.”


You nod, but there’s something in your gut. The fear is entirely new, sharp as a razor yet soft as breath. It’s almost impossible for you to concentrate on balancing the ledger and the day seems to stretch on forever.


When you arrive home the fire has burned down to embers and the chair is empty.


“He was here,” you say.


The door slams behind you, “Still is.” Cotton’s voice is still raw, but much stronger than it was.


“Dad.” Bel is hoarse.




You turn, and Cotton lowers his shotgun. He was almost perfectly invisible in the shadow of the stove.


“I had to know you were alone.”


“And what would you have done if we weren’t?” You’ve skipped scared and gone straight to angry.


“I don’t know.” He shrugs, “It’s not loaded.” He cracks the breach on the shotgun and shows them the empty barrels. The barrels have been sawn short.


“Why are you here?” Bel says.


“Job. Sit down. I can explain.”


You struggle to believe his tale, of being sucked into a yawning void in the ocean, a minor breach into Malifaux - land of magic and eternal twilight. Cotton and his crewmates made landfall half dead from eating hallucinogenic fish after almost a month on strange seas. Rumors spread in Malifaux city and soon he was contacted by a beautiful magician intrigued by the possibilities of a breach outside of Guild control.


“Of course, being a minor rift, it moved around a bit. Sometimes we were stuck waiting for it to open up for a few days, but we always found it. In the end. When we got Earthside we’d run up the coast to about the arctic circle and pass off the goods to a group of strange fellows, half feral and half French. Cannibals most likely, December cultists.”


“What were you running?” Bel asks.


“The only thing worth the effort,” Cotton says, and he reaches into his pocket, “Soulstones.” He takes out a milky orb, multifaceted and imperfect.


“And why are you here?” You say.


“The breach closed as we came through, boat broke up. I caught as many stones as I could in my bag and clung to a bit of the hull that ended up on the right side… Most of the crew didn’t make it, and them I don’t envy. There are things in the oceans of Malifaux that…” Cotton crosses himself with the care of a non-believer, “Luckily I got picked up by a steamer. Unluckily it was under orders from the Navy. I spent most of the last month in the bilge hold, half soaked and starving. Used Soulstones to stay alive and hidden. Only have fourteen left.”


Fourteen… A fortune. “So that’s why they’re looking for you,” you say, and you led them to our door.


“Aye.” He hears your accusation and doesn’t refute it, “Don’t fear, I’m leaving tonight.”


“No,” Bel breathes.


“No, she’s right lad, I’ll only bring trouble on you.” Cotton kisses his son on the forehead.


You break bread together, and he leaves as soon as the sun is fully set, slipping out the back door and cutting through fallow fields before doubling back into town.


You hear the stories of what happened later, how one of your neighbors caught sight of him and went running for the tower, how he was cornered by two full squadrons of Guard. You could see from your window the flashes of light, tiny violent dawns. His flight leaves its scars deep in the cobblestone streets of the village.


That night you tell Bel about the baby. The next day the Guild comes to your door, Bel is in chains, his hands still caked in dough. They let him tell you, “They’re taking the bakery. Restitution for the damage my father,” the word catches in his throat, “For the damage Cotton caused last night.”


And that’s why your husband had to go to the city to look for work. You watched his back all the way down the lane and silently repeated the words you said when he hugged you goodbye, “Don’t look back, don’t ever look back. I love you.”


A letter arrived today, addressed to Bel. It isn’t stamped or signed. You haven’t opened it, just set it over the mantle where it will wait until he returns. He’s breachside now, with troubles you don’t understand, but you don’t think a letter in his father’s hand will help at all.


Questions, comments, and feedback of all kinds is appreciated. Thanks for reading!

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Nicely done again.  I got a little smile when I recognized Bel's name.  Me and my love of serials.  I really liked the narrator's voice - very distinct and characterful.  It brought the whole story to life in a really neat way.  I found it all very rich and evocative.  It was easy to feel immersed in the setting.

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I'm really glad you liked it! I had mixed feelings about it, second person is always weird to work in, but I feel good about it over all and I'm glad you agree.


The serial thing has been a fun challenge and I'm enjoying it more and more with each new story I add to the "canon".


Thanks for reading, I look forward to reading your entry.



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