Steel Cages

Here’s a short story I’ve given up on getting into a satisfactory state. Tomorrow I’ll post some notes on its development, and why it doesn’t work for me.

 

Steel Cages

Arran couldn’t suppress a shiver as he drove the wagon towards the steel-lined gates. He kept his nerves firmly under control, so as not to give the guards reason for suspicion – beyond what his being from the countryside would naturally arouse.

He couldn’t help staring at Irondell’s gates. It was the first city he’d seen this close. There was a reason for that, of course. He could almost taste the iron. The gates and outer walls had high concentrations, to discourage the fae-blooded from approaching. The thought of all the iron made him want to ride hard in the opposite direction. Tightening his grip on the reins, he assured himself he wouldn’t hang around longer than necessary.

A guard came forward to meet him, staring with what hard-faced ire he could muster. ‘What’re you carrying?’

‘Meat,’ said Arran. The shape of the wrapped bundles should’ve given it away, even if the Barnley family symbol on the wagon wasn’t familiar here. Did the guard expect to trip him up on something so basic?

Adopting a vacuous smile as the guard examined the wagon, Arran couldn’t help glancing at the walls. He kept discomfort from his face, but awe at the scale of the city would be fine. Let them think him a country bumpkin.

The awe was tempered with unease at the thought of living somewhere so confined, quite apart from it being laced with iron. He had trouble believing people willingly suffered this, just for fear of what may lay beyond. Not that he wanted them venturing outside, cluttering up the countryside, but he didn’t think he could live this kind of crowded life.

Finding nothing, the guard returned to staring at Arran. Was he actually suspicious, or did he just enjoy this? Soon enough, having apparently done his duty, he shrugged and waved the wagon through.

Nodding his thanks, to an indifferent reception, Arran prodded the horses.

Passing through the gates he felt suddenly constricted, barely catching an involuntary shudder. He didn’t glance to see if the guards had noticed. If they had, the damage was done; if not, he could look suspicious. He focused his attention on the trading enclave, as far into the city as he’d be allowed.

Despite the need to trade with rural areas, city folk didn’t trust anyone from the countryside, believing they all had fae blood. While Arran had a fair bit, most had barely enough to feel a tickle kissing iron.

The metal had become the primary defence for cities to prevent faeries abducting and replacing people. Leaving them to prey on country folk. To conserve resources, they alloyed iron with other metals so the various steels covered more surfaces. The different varieties had different strengths, and which type a house was caked with indicated the wealth of its inhabitants.

According to rumours, anyway. Country folk weren’t allowed in the city proper, so whether all houses had iron shielding as was rumoured he couldn’t be sure. Most stories came from those banished from cities, either for crimes or overcrowding, and that kind couldn’t be trusted.

Irondell probably had a better chance of it than other cities, being on the edge of the Greyspear mountains – or the Faeriebanes, as they were called these days – which had the largest known deposits of iron. Arran had felt their oppressive presence on his approach, though that’d just be in his mind.

If they could raise and harvest their own food within the city, they’d probably shut themselves off completely from the danger of contamination. Until then, they had to deal with country folk, so they set up quarantined trading enclaves on the city’s edge. Monitored and patrolled enclaves.

This early, only a few stalls were occupied. Thankfully not by anyone he recognised. Mainly locals, he imagined. Livestock farmers, which was what the land here was best suited for.

That’d make it harder for him to sell. The city folk’d prefer outsiders they were familiar with. He may have to drop prices to break in.

New markets took time, and the Barnleys rarely came this far west. But rumours of poor breeding seasons over this way had drawn their interest. The other stalls gave lie to the rumour. Still, the family would hardly resist the opportunity to break into a market where the cursed Sycombes did a good trade with their crops.

He chose a vacant stall apart from the others and pulled the horse up alongside.

Arran had unloaded barely half the salted carcasses when guards arrived. The one in the lead had no armour, just a dark uniform and a darker glare. A steeleye – an inspector vigilant for faerie activity. Arran’s first. Given how little faerie activity the countryside had seen in the last decades, it was doubtful steeleyes served any real purpose. Other than to intimidate country folk.

Suppressing his anxieties, Arran offered a smile.

The steeleye didn’t return it, or speak. His hard gaze swept over the meat. He unwrapped one. A coin emerged from his pocket, the iron in it almost burning Arran’s eyes to look at. He managed not to react. Considering the effect of the diluted iron surrounding them, the coin must be pure.

The coin was placed on the meat, and Arran reminded himself to breathe. When had they started doing this? The coin came off and the meat was unchanged. He didn’t exhale quite as deeply as he could.

The steeleye opened another, repeating the process. Again it had no effect, other that straining Arran’s nerves. The steeleye gave a slight nod, although his mouth seemed less than happy. The coin didn’t go away, and the steeleye met Arran’s gaze. Had he let something show?

Approaching the wagon, the steeleye took a bundle from near the bottom. Yanking the wrapping open he placed the coin on the meat. For a few seconds everything seemed the same, and he went to remove it.

A wisp of smoke drifted up. The steeleye hesitated, before removing the coin to reveal a burn where there’d previously been clean flesh.

His gaze returned to Arran. The steeleye said nothing, gesturing to the guards.

Damn. He’d hoped to be gone before they realised. It took effort to suppress the growing panic. This’d always been a possibility, albeit one he’d avoided dwelling on. He’d simply have to talk his way out. It wasn’t as though they executed fae-blooded these days. None he’d heard of. And it wasn’t as though he had much choice.

The guards grabbed Arran’s arms and dragged him away. Their steel breastplates almost burned through his sleeves as he rubbed against them. More guards reinforced them, not wanting to risk him getting loose and abducting city folk.

*

The prison wasn’t as bad as he’d feared. You heard stories of cages made entirely of iron, with nothing between you and them. Possibly they’d move him to one of them any minute, but for now he was in a solidly stone cell. The door and bars on the window had iron, but staying to the middle of the room he experienced only mild discomfort. It’d been worse in the enclave. Of course out there he’d had the fear of being uncovered.

They left him a while – probably longer than necessary. It was a few hours later when the steeleye entered. A pair of guards watched from the doorway.

‘Your name?’ said the steeleye.

‘Timus Barnley,’ said Arran. The surname they’d assume from the wagon, but there was no reason to give his real first name.

The steeleye held out the coin. ‘Take it.’

Arran stared at it, then at the steeleye.

‘Take it,’ said the steeleye.

‘I’ve got fae blood,’ Arran admitted.

‘I need to know how much. Take it.’

They’d force it on him if he didn’t. While it wouldn’t be pleasant, at least this way he’d have some control. Arran reluctantly took the coin. It burned as his fingers grazed it.

That wasn’t enough for the steeleye. Grabbing Arran’s hand, he closed it around the coin. Agony lanced up his arm, and he nearly collapsed when the steeleye released him.

The coin fell, the steeleye catching it before it hit the ground. He stepped back and waited for Arran to recover.

‘Now, tell us about the infected meat,’ said the steeleye. There was a slight quiver to his voice. It took Arran a moment to notice, but when he managed to focus his vision he saw the calm on the steeleye’s face was forced. He’d probably never met anyone with any real fae blood. This was new to him too.

‘I didn’t know it was infected.’

The steeleye recovered his confidence. ‘Your blood makes you prone to trickery and cheating, so you’ll understand my disbelief.’

‘If we were trying to sneak infected meat in, don’t you think we’d have sent someone without fae blood to avoid suspicion?’ said Arran.

‘That raises another interesting point. Why would you come here at all? It can’t be comfortable.’

‘Lynd was meant to bring them. He’s not feeling well, so I took his place.’ Lynd wouldn’t be feeling much of anything for a while, considering what he’d drunk.

‘You’re pleading ignorance?’

‘I’m saying I don’t know anything about the meat,’ said Arran.

‘Do you know why it’s being brought to a city where your family don’t normally trade?’

Arran shrugged. ‘New market. We’ve had a few good years with livestock, so there’s more than the regular places’ll take.’

The steeleye was unconvinced, his uncertainty fully suppressed. ‘Still I find myself doubting your every word. Do you know why? Because you weren’t surprised the meat was fae-infected.’

Arran couldn’t think of a response that’d convince them. He wondered if they’d keep him here, locked up, until they were satisfied with his answer. What would they do with him then? Releasing him would be his preference, obviously, but the longer he held out the less likely that seemed. Glancing at the coin, he didn’t think torture would be out of line. Could he use the opportunity?

The steeleye’s glare pinned him in place.

Arran didn’t have to fake his deflation as he backed against the wall.

‘The faeries’ve been around,’ he said. ‘They’ve started messing with the cattle.’

The steeleye gave a slight nod. City folk always suspected faerie of something. ‘So you tried to offload it somewhere you don’t normally trade?’ said the steeleye.

Arran nodded.

‘You think it won’t reach the other cities? You think we won’t tell them?’

Arran stared at the floor. ‘What’ll you do to me?’

The silence wasn’t pleasant, but Arran didn’t think the steeleye’d be needlessly cruel. If he was to be punished they wouldn’t also stretch this out. He hoped.

The steeleye nodded to the guards, and they advanced on Arran.

*

The pain from contact with the guards’ breastplates battled with Arran’s growing sense of hope as they dragged him through the deserted enclave. That they were headed out of the city might be a good thing. Then again, they wouldn’t want to spill fae blood inside the city.

The smell of burning meat met them. Passing through the gates he saw guards supervising the pyre of his stock.

The escorts threw him stumbling towards the wagon. He resisted the impulse to soothe the burning to his arms. It’d wait until he was out of sight.

‘Never return,’ said the steeleye. ‘The other cities will be notified of your family’s actions. None of you are welcome here.’

Under their hard gazes, Arran clambered onto the wagon and set off.

*

The likely repercussions didn’t allow him much sleep, and Arran lay considering them the next morning as he listened to Lynd stumble and grumble into daylight.

Rumours of infected meat would spread through the cities. Travel between them was uncommon, and only done in secure caravans, but they saw themselves as united against the fae threat. It’d take a while for them to decide on a course of action, but until then they wouldn’t buy meat, no matter how thorough their checks.

So Barnley trade would suffer, as would the other livestock farmers. While crop farmers like the Sycombes would reap the benefits.

An inarticulate shriek of alarm came from outside. Arran suppressed a smile as he rose. With a reasonable appearance of bleariness, he stumbled from the barn, shielding his eyes.

‘The meat’s gone,’ said Lynd. His disoriented gaze turned to suspicion as it settled on Arran.

Arran frowned. ‘Yes. It’ll be in Irondell, where you sold it yesterday.’

Lynd’s expression grew puzzled. Then doubtful. ‘Yesterday? Yesterday I left home and met you in the evening and we came here and drank.’

‘Possibly a bit too much,’ Arran shook his head. ‘I knew you were the worse for it, but forgetting the whole day?’ With what Arran had slipped in his drink, Lynd had slept through the day.

‘I went to Irondell?’ Lynd remained doubtful.

‘And did well to judge by the moneybag,’ Arran nodded back into the barn.

Lynd stumbled towards the promised evidence, none too certain of his feet.

Arran gave another glance at the wagons before following him in, but he’d made certain to clean everything up. He’d gone down the road a ways before using the faerie dust, so there’d be no traces here that he’d soaked it into the meat to give the impression of infection – city folk’d believe pretty much anything involving faeries, and since they’d never venture out of their fortresses, they hadn’t a clue as to the truth.

The shade of the barn took a moment for his eyes to readjust to after the sun. Lynd sat by the bag with a disbelieving smile developing.

‘You really did drink a bit too much, didn’t you?’ Arran said as he settled down and grabbed a bottle.

‘Must have,’ Lynd said absently.

‘You won’t want more from the last bottle then?’

That got his attention.

‘I wouldn’t say that,’ said Lynd. ‘It’d be wrong not to celebrate.’ He accepted the bottle and took a long swig, then held it out for Arran. ‘You know, you’re all right. For a Sycombe. Not at all the shifty manipulator everyone says you are.’

‘I’ll drink to that.’

THE END

 

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