Never one to be left out of the rat race, Masym Helmund stood at the back of a long line of folks who, unlike him, were excited to visit Sabrycing’s newest Cordwainer to repair their work boots, or their lounge slippers, or whatever else they might have been holding on to. Masym, on the other hand, found himself at the end of a long line with no shoes of his own to repair. He could do the work himself. At his own shop, named after his grandfather who established it years ago when the Helmund family first touched down in the mire that spread through Aenham like a sweeping plague. The long line of Helmund folks were well renowned in their own right in the realm of shoe repair.
However, this new shop claimed to be something more than a repairman. That they “hand-crafted” shoes from fine leathers, imported from other kingdoms. Likely from the United Kingdoms of Athella sold to their companions for chips on a scale and connected, however surreptitiously with the Contracted Guilds. Their imported footwear would have, indeed, a higher quality.
But Masym Helmund was a crafty man, and he’d been in the game for a long, long time. Approaching his golden years, he was hellbent on reaching retirement age so that he might, finally, take his scales to a distant town. Perhaps Meekhill, where he could enjoy the seaside calm without the ceaseless drone of busybody townsfolk. Instead, he was faced down with yet another shoemaker in the city. By his count, this was the fourth, after his family and despite Sabrycing being a sprawling locale, there was little need for such a swathe of one kind of work.
So, he was investigating.
His daughter, Jubilee, would have called him paranoid if she knew he’d taken the day to scout the new shop, but there was simply no need for so many people like him in one place. Half the city didn’t even own shoes, let alone have the money to get a pair fixed.
Something about the new shop was suspect and he intended to figure out exactly what their business was for. The line was long, far longer than he’d seen at any of the previous shops, his included. On his busiest day he’d service maybe twenty individual pairs of shoes. If he was tasked with crafting a new pair, he’d be lucky to see five a day.
He peered over the shoulders of the impatient guests and took stock of the building. A single floor hut, twice the length of his own, maybe twice as wide, though it was difficult to tell at this angle. He assumed he could have reasonably filled his shop with three more employees, making for four total. If their shop was two or three times the size, they could fit twelve. Suddenly the line of sixty or so villagers didn’t seem so farfetched. Between twelve employees, each of them seeing twenty at a time, the building itself was plenty large enough.
“So what are they doing?”
He tapped his fingers on the edge of his bag impatiently as the line slowly crept forward. Thankfully, winter in Aenham was far less miserable than other places, except perhaps in the desert on the other side of the world. He’d never been, of course, perhaps he’d look to retire there. Despite the mild winters in the swampland, his bones ached more and more with the cold days. This particular day was especially frigid.
“How is it?” A waiting customer a few spaces ahead of him reached out to a young man, holding a pair of ox-leather loafers with a fresh polish and a new row of stitching. Besides the wear in the rest of the thread, they would have looked like brand new shoes. Behind the boy was a pair of older woman whose slippers had been re-soled with, if he was right, and he always was, Teased Elk Fur on the inside, with a thick folded rawhide heel, delicate silvery veinmarks gave away the region of the leather. Atla’s Snowy mountains which boasted a particularly stout breed of oxen.
“Hard to come by in these parts.” He nodded at them.
Both of the women turned their noses.
The line moved forward and he observed the continual stream of satisfied customers with their winged loafers, reseated on a pad of elm bark, aglets replaced with steel rings and laces wound with horsetail flew past him in a parade of workmanship that he hated to admit was of high quality.
This shop was an even larger menace to his peace than he’d first assumed.
Only twelve or so customers ahead of him, he slipped his own shoes out. A test pair he’d brought to other cobblers to accurately understand the quality of their work. He knew he was the best, and if they failed his test he didn’t feel the need to worry about them. Still, his newest test was a deviant one. All of the problems with the shoes were cosmetic. A scratch on the heel, a frayed lace and a worn out sole on the bottom of the shoe meant they didn’t have to fix anything and if there was nothing to fix but accepted his coin regardless, he would know definitively they were a luxury.
Luxury meant, in Sabrycing, at least, that someone had gotten in bed with one of the Companies, or at worst, the Kingdom of Athella as a whole.
Of course, he knew how hypocritical it sounded. He worked with leather distributors and textile companies by the boat load. Whatever material was requested, he promised he’d acquire. This meant at times more often than he was comfortable he needed to dirty his hands with the intermingling of the Guilded Companies. Despite how much he hated the notion, he had met that old badger Cypruss through Hile Textiles. Whatever the cost of sacrificing his morality, at least Cypruss came out on the other side his companion.
It was his friends’ information which led Maysm to the new shop on this particular day, and was also, in a manner, why he was so suspicious of the new owners. Sabrycing was not an easy place to settle down. Beyond the extremely hostile wildlife outside the city walls making travel a nigh insurmountable difficulty, the people of the gods forsaken city were perhaps more deadly than the shambling things which had lived there far longer than the city had.
The difference, he learned quickly, is that those animals didn’t care how you felt. They operated on base instinct. Once an unsuspecting soul made their way into the city walls, they were faced with a much more violent, and infinitely more devious predator. The citizens of the “City of Life” who similarly didn’t care whether you lived or died, but wanted to cause as much pain as possible on the way out.
It was a well known characteristic about the city and so, when an unnamed group of youths strode through the front gates with plans to build a shop in the district next to his, doing what he had done for the people for decades, he expected them to fail immediately. Cast aside by the upturned noses of the nobility, and failing that, ignored by the lower classes whose boots were not lined with fur but rather the anger of their mistreatment.
It was a surprise when, despite the cold shoulders of the entire district which Maysm had felt himself despite growing up in the city, that this band of cobblers and trick-makers managed to open their shop. With such success, he discovered, that they were lining the streets with potential customers.
The line before him was moving steadily, finally, and as he passed through the threshold of the shop he was able to look, for the first time, inside to see what was so wonderful about the place.
To his surprise, it was rather welcoming. With a curled lip and a deep frown he made sure to take in all of the decoration of the lesser cobbler’s shop. The room itself was large, much larger than his own shop. Hanging on the walls were decorations traditionally present in neighboring kingdoms, the symbols of nations distant painted onto canvas banners, each of which he recognized as part of the Athellan United.
The Fox and Crown of Barothell and the Fish and Sun of Hiliod hung on either side of the clerk desk where the line ended at a young rosy cheeked boy speaking with the first in a still long line of customers. Above him hung the other banners of the Athellan United, Atla’s Dragon and Lance and Dorathell’s Great Tree of Managmir. Each of them flapped lazily in the wind of the chilly morning.
“Welcome to Lansbury House.” A voice spoke to him from behind.
Maysm jumped and faced the sound, a weasly young girl stood with her apron folded neatly over her waist, a small hammer in her hand. “Oh dear, are you…” she paused.
He lifted his hand, in a gesture to quiet her. “I am indeed Cobbler Maysm Helmund, just from the district over. I don’t doubt some of your customers have mentioned me today.” He reached his hand out for the young woman to take.
She instead offered him a blank gaze.
“No, I don’t recall anyone mentioning you, I just recognize you from my boss.”
Maysm cocked an eyebrow. “Your employer is familiar with me?”
The girl turned away to adjust a display of tools hanging beneath a large painting of a wolf.
“I suppose so, he’s been talking about you a great deal. If you came by today he wanted us to escort you to him, if you are willing.”
Though the “Lansbury House” was a sham, and despite not wanting to breathe in the scent of their fresh burning cedar fire, or see the remarkable work of their craftsmen, he obliged. As if he’d no control over his own words.
“I would love to meet this employer.” Maysm Helmund nodded to the woman who, lazily waved him to follow.
She took him through the small swinging door near the clerk’s desk to the back room, which unveiled itself, as he expected, to be a workshop nearly three times the size of his own. Within, large machines had been built of iron and copper. Each of them were run by a uniformed member of the Lansbury House. Steam shot from vents at the top and sides of the great machines while below them, belts of chainmail rolled along small pipes, carrying materials he’d used every day. All pieces of crafting. Wood and leather, small bowls filled with pins and thread slid across a long canvas belt and were plucked by employees who gathered the components to craft the shoes themselves.
He could barely close his mouth as the woman led him beneath a large copper tank filled with boiling water. Pipes and chains hung from the well in every direction, stretching across the workshop and into the other machines in a confusing knot of metal and steam.
“Lansbury mentioned you were a single operation, but he respects you a great deal for the work you perform here in Sabrycing.” The sounds of the machinery so loud the poor woman was shouting at him. Even in a quiet room, Maysm’s hearing wasn’t the best. He could barely hear her as she continued.
“He knew you’d be interested, you know you have a reputation here in the city.”
She hopped over a rolling cart, pushed by a sturdy young man.
“He wants to talk to you about expanding your business ventures, you know. Making your shop a little bigger, giving us the help we need. That sort of thing.”
He’d never heard such laughable words in his life.
“I am a craftsman, young lady. Whatever you are doing here is remarkable, but this is not soulful this doesn’t prove artistry or passion. This is soulless. These machines do everything for you.”
The woman shrugged. “To be truthful with you, sir Helmund, I have nothing to say. I get paid in scales per hour. I don’t actually deal with any of this kind of thing. I’m not who you want to prove yourself to.” She stopped before a large mahogany door with a symbol carved into it, of a hand holding a chalice.
“I will not be proving myself to anyone, dear, I will let my work speak on my behalf.”
The woman rolled her eyes. “Alright, sir.”
She pressed down on the handle and shoved the door open. “Lansbury is inside.”
Maysm sucked in a defiant breath and stepped through the doorway, ready to chastise the owner of the gaudy, soulless, although impressive, cobbler building. When his eyes fell to the man on the other side of the desk his bravado vanished from him like a leaf in the breeze.
“Welcome, Maysm! I’m so glad you could make it.”
Sitting across from him was his friend, Cypruss. Evidently, Cypruss Lansbury, judging by the family crest hanging above him.
“We have some things we should discuss. I’m so grateful to see you here on this day.”
Maysm was unconditionally flabbergasted.
He supposed it made some sense, Cypruss was eager for him to visit the shop and had, on frequent occasions made it a point to talk about how poor the quality of their work would be judging by the material they were purchasing from Hile Textiles.
Of course, what of it could be true? If Cypruss said it, then it was to get him agitated enough to come see what the fuss was about. He knew what Maysm’s pet peeves were. He knew how to rile the old man up.
“So I suppose you’ve left your station at the Textile Shipyard?” Maysm took a seat before a massive statue of a man standing atop a barrel. The sword in the statues hand scraped the ceiling.
“I’ve been gone from there for some years. I’ve been devoting my later years to making this,” He gestured around the office and all of its scattered torn paperwork. “My future. I’m retiring!”
Maysm rolled his eyes.
“Retirement? Under Archduke Frans you would have been able to retire five years sooner, but you refused to take his proposition, and what happened? He was hanged, because of it.” The old man across from him creaked out a wrinkled grin.
“Well,” Cypruss folded his hands together. “He wasn’t hanged because of his employment policies.” The new businessman was fighting a chuckle. Maysm noted the twitch in his mustache, the delicate shake of a beard attached to a man restrained.
“So, would you like me to congratulate you, Cypruss? On stealing what little business I have left?”
The old codger kicked back atop his stool and leaned against a wall, his hands folded tight in front of him.
“Oh Maysm, you’ve always been so negative, this is an opportunity to do what you’ve always said you wanted to do. Improve.”
“I’m seventy nine years old, Cypruss, I don’t have much room for improvement left!”
At that, Cyprus laughed.
“Seventy-nine?” He reached above him and pulled a small book from a nearby shelf. “You’re a spring chicken, Maysm.”
The book which Cypruss took into his hands was not a book at all, but rather a small wooden box which, when he opened, revealed a series of small brass keys, each of which appeared to fit the same lock.
“Maysm, I’ve been working on a much larger project than this. I’ve been hearing a lot of rumors on the wind, lately. You know the King is not long for this world… His son soon to take over.”
Of course he’d heard, everyone knew about the little Prince and the kingdom’s worry that he would sell them out to Athella as soon as he took power.
“I have good news, my dear Maysm.”
His competitor handed him one of the brass keys, and with a look on his face that warned Maysm he might be dealing with someone far more competent than he’d ever accused Cypruss of being.
“I’ve got the cure for all of your problems.”
The old man who harbored more secrets than Maysm could have guessed, knocked on the wall behind him and revealed a hidden tunnel descending beneath the shop.
“Come with me, dear friend. I have much to show you.”
The hidden tunnel stretched deep into the darkness far below, deep enough that Maysm’s joints began to ache from the constant pounding of his feet upon the stone steps. The access way had bene used recently, which was obvious, but still harbored the notion of unrest cramped in the corners of the rafters.
The strange old man led him deeper beneath the stone lined streets of Sabrycing and did not stop moving until he’d reached a darkness in the depths of his stairwell which threatened to swallow them both whole. With a quiet whisper, Cypruss uttered a word in a foreign tongue.
A fraction of a second after the word left his lips, the darkness curled away from them both as braziers lit unanimously all through the room, illuminating the space with fire of a strange pink hue. His friend clapped softly and turned to face him.
“Was it necessary for you to further brag about the space you can afford?”
Cypruss didn’t bother answering and instead led him through a spanning, convoluted series of halls and stockrooms filled with thousands, if not millions of scales worth of leather and stitching supplies. The collection of this massive quantity of goods couldn’t have been done overnight. He kept a keen eye on the merchant yard and anyone shipping this much product would have caught his attention. It was likely, he deduced, that Cypruss had been planning this for many years. Decades, potentially.
It wasn’t until they arrived in a small, dim room alit by a handful of sconces that his companion elected to speak, and his tone came through grave and shallow breath.
“We have been watching the king, his declining health state has been alarming to more than a few of his subjects. The Prince a child clearly unfit for the throne, they have elected to take matters into their own hands.”
Cypruss moved to a bench at the far wall of the room, surrounded on all sides by windows which did not peer out into the staunch dirt walls of their burrowed stockade but rather peered into the inky blackness of a much larger room. Maysm approached his companion with an uncertain step and gazed through the windows, allowing him sight upon the unending well of darkness below them both. The room they stood in supported by a puzzle of wooden beams and guard rails hastily tied together at every joint.
Below them, beneath the edge of the room he realized was overhanging, sat a small circular room with a stained glass floor. Depictions of two large humans on the glass, one surrounded in white flowers and another in black, with red roses. They laid on their sides, oriented opposite. Where the woman in white laid her feet, the man in black rested his head. Both of them appeared to be asleep in the artwork.
“Are you familiar with ‘The Ancients’ Maysm?”
Cyprus withdrew a scroll and placed it atop the bench. The Ancients were familiar to everyone who’d attended their primary schooling. Though most considered the “histories” to be little more than cheap fabrications, there was no doubt a fascination with the race of people who came long before Maysm’s greatest grandfather, who were said to have been walking the earth centuries before their cities were built. Supposedly they’d built their own kingdoms beneath the sea, long before the waters rose.
The Nation of Barothell having been the chief proponents of this mythos claimed to have found evidence of this ancient race in the depths of the sea to the north tip of the continent, but he’d not seen any of it himself, let alone considered the possibility that anyone could live under the water. This of course was cheapened by their assurance to destroy the history of each other Nation they conquered and absorbed into their “Grand Athella” Years of lineages destroyed by the nation who supposedly wanted to preserve the history of this people who seemed not to have ever existed.
The branches of the Heraphilus Tree in Hiliod, the ransacking of the Immersman Caves in Atla, the attempted siege of the Sabrycing Crypts in their rampage fueled takeover meant little to Maysm. A nation so wholly consumed bu history destroying what was unique and valuable to the nations they conquered would do no less than to create an imaginary fable of a race who lived before them, before anyone, to unify their world government.
“Who isn’t?” He replied, leaning against the bench to relax his aching knees. “They were a group of fish who lived beneath the seas, everyone says.”
“A group of fish so technologically advanced they could live beneath the ocean. Isn’t that awe inspiring?”
He really wasn’t in the mood for fairy tale.
“Get to the point, Cypruss. What is all of this?”
The room outside their little makeshift workshop stretched from the stained glass far below, up to some point above them he couldn’t see.
“The King is of ailing health, as we are aware, we know as well that there is a wealth of technology fished from the seas to the North, no? So,” he paused, clearly with the intention to build tension. Maysm yawned in response. “Myself and some others from Sabrycing have taken it upon ourselves to fix the King’s condition.”
“Condition?” He spat. “There is no condition you loon. He is an old man. Of course he is approaching death, just like the two of us.”
“What if,” Cypruss slipped a small item, attached to a chain, from a bag atop the table. “We didn’t have to let old age stop us?”
The item wrapped around his fingers looked to be, to his best guess, a vial of milky, silvery liquid. It swirled with a thick slosh in the vial. Attached to the chain also, was a small silver container molded into the shape of a skull.
“What if there is a way for us to live forever, just as we are today?”
Maysm couldn’t halt the parade of laughter which suddenly overcame him.
“You mean to tell me you’d live forever as an old man? With ailing joints and broken bones to shrivel up, forever?”
His old friend didn’t reply, but began unbuttoning his tunic.
Cypruss Lansbury, the man who Maysm realized he did not know at all, slipped out of his shirt and tossed it aside to reveal his bare chest, decorated with deep scars.
“Long Live the King, Maysm Helmund.”
Tattooed above the patch of ringed scars was his house symbol, the Chalice, in fresh ink. The hand which held the chalice, on the banner in his office, wore a ring. On his chest, the ring was real. It protruded from his chest and glowed with a faint, silver shimmer.
Maysm gasped and stood, the sight of the glittering ring abhorrent.
“What is the meaning of this?”
“We can live as the Ancients did, my friend. We are not bound by the fate of our mortal brethren.”
In the gem of the ring, he couldn’t look away from the swirling silver liquid.
“We need only admit ourselves to this, the understanding that as long as our King shall live, so too, shall we. What do you say, Maysm? My old friend. There are callings higher than that of making shoes until you are carried to the earth. You could live for more, so, so much more.”
Cypruss held the vial out, its cork stained by the silver liquid whose origin he dared not ask.
What would it have meant to him to have remained in his shop that morning? Would it have prevented him from finding his way to the depths of his competitor-friend’s accursed shop, he wondered? Would it have mattered to any of them? What then, if the Prince did become their king? Would the boy truly sell Aenham’s delicate people to the war machine of Athella? Would it matter to him?
He thought, perhaps he’d be dead before the day came. To be reunited with his former pets, each of whom he loved as much as the previous. He would one day, perhaps see his late wife who wanted little more than to divorce him before she passed unexpectedly. Could he tell her then, that he’d turned down the chance at immortality for one more night to beg for her forgiveness? And what of the liquid before him?
He thought, for a moment, about the daughter he’d grown so distant from, his dear Jubilee. About the rejection from the Aenham Military when he was still a young man. He remembered the scorn of his friends as they moved to new Nations, some for schooling and others to make something of themselves more than to be a cobbler, pushing eighty years old and bitter at everyone in the city who didn’t appreciate art as he did.
What change had he really made? No one cared about the craft of his shoes or the loyalty of his shop. What mattered was not the quality of a good shoe, to the average citizen of Aenham. What mattered to them was survival against the growing tide of Athella.
He’d felt it too, but instead of raising his voice or causing a scene, he rejected his chance twenty years ago and continued doing what he’d always known.
What would it have meant for his father, to give up his duties in the shop? Would he be able to return to the family crypt and ask forgiveness in a century or more? He dared not wonder what the ichor was made of, for fear of running away from yet another chance, another opportunity to be something more than “Maysm the Curmudgeon.”
The possibilities swelled through his mind and threatened to burst from him. All of the chances he’d had to make a difference to the people of Sabrycing through his craft, his passion for what his family had given to him swirled into a silvery, shimmering tonic.
He silenced his mind, finally, and made his decision.
“Well, Cypruss. What do I need to do?”
A wicked grin spread across his friend’s face.
“Take this and drink it, and then you will know.”
The cool glass vial slipped into his palm as if it were meant to be there, as if it had been made for him. He pulled the cork and through trembling jaw, drank his future whole.
Thank you for reading!
The above is the second of three interludes, each of which are going to be released on Fridays in April, while I take some time to plan the next step of the main storyline — I hope you’ve enjoyed the first Interlude.
Interlude Three is out next Friday!
Sisters of Westwinter is an episodic fantasy series taking place in a world torn apart by the greed of mortals. Dragons, which populate the world, are considered a pest to be exterminated and harvested for the valuable pearls within their bodies. These pearls power grand machines used by the Merchant Guilds to continue to build up their own empires. When a young woman named Emry discovers her valley was protected by a great silver dragon, she promises him on his deathbed she will flee from the valley to elude those who wish to seek her harm. She does not know how, or why she matters to the dragon, but she obeys. On her escape with another of the dragons, she is shot down and imprisoned, branded a "witch" for her bond with Balshenai, a fearsome golden scaled dragon. Locked in prison, she can only think of her family, killed by mysterious men in the night, and Balshenai's final words to her. "Seek Westwinter"
Big News: I’ve recently started a Ko-fi Shop!
If you would like to help support me as I continue to expand these universes, I would be deeply appreciative.
It is a work in progress, but I will be building a tier system where you will be available to get some neat rewards and more down the road, until then it’s just a little cup of coffee! If you feel inclined to drop me a dollar or two, I would be so grateful. Every cent donated goes directly back into this — Allowing me to pay for website fees and pay for artists for novel related work, etc.
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A.T. Baines Ko-Fi
Mental Health is a dear topic and I want to encourage support for anyone who is in the midst of trying to help in whatever capacity.
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[SOW] Interlude Three: The Seafarer’s Secret
To do what was required of her meant in most cases she needed to silence the part of herself that called out with the cries of the sinking crews. On her last run, as soon as she and her crew boarded the vessel and began tearing apart their commodities, she realized immediately it was not…
[SOW] Interlude One: Students & Shipyards
While a creeping winter frost covered his desk side window, Enryn Hile sat with his chin in his palm and half-listened to the recollection of national history, a piece of literature published some century before he was born that told about the great feats of Athella and their companions through the years.
SOW: Chapter Five, Part Five: A Single Spark
The Nail Ward, as they called it, was as miserable as it looked from the outside. The thousands of needles covering the floor and walls made it impossible to relax, and sleep was terribly out of the question. So Kerrick stood in the corner waiting, patiently, for the sunrise.