9. Down a Few Rungs

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The clearing was so quiet one could have heard a pine needle drop. As mayor, Kadav had an instinct for sizing up situations, and this one took him no time at all. He had sent a message all right. Only instead of demonstrating his authority, he had shown himself to be impotent and vulnerable. Burn Hrago! In the course of a few minutes, the cabbage farmer had done more damage to his cause than the priest could have dreamed of doing.

Kadav descended the ladder with the last of his dignity, trying not to show his great relief at stepping back onto solid ground. Avoiding the others' stares, he dusted himself off and strode quickly from the worksite without a word. Somehow, he managed not to sneeze.

If he was looking for a quiet place to regroup and reflect on this disastrous turn of events, the smithy was a supremely bad choice. Tendrils of dark smoke were streaming out of every crevice of the makeshift structure. The smith was sitting on the ground outside, knuckling his eyes with his fists.

"What happened here?" Kadav asked wearily.

Argon jumped to his feet, trying to focus his watery, bloodshot eyes on the visitor. "It's awful smoky in there."

"Is that so?" Kadav threw open the door to great billows of inky black smoke. His eyes, already irritated from the wood dust, began to throb and run.

"Stings, don't it?" the smith said sympathetically.

As there was nothing else to be done, Kadav sat on a log to wait for the smoke to clear. With friendly concern, the smith sat down next to him and draped an arm over his shoulder. "Is there something you need to be getting off your chest, mayor?"

Kadav pushed him away. "What in Orduvan's name are you talking about?"

The smith shrank back, shamefaced. "I seen that you was crying and figured something was troubling you. Even mayors got to cry sometimes, I figure."

"It's the bloody smoke from the smithy. See, you're crying yourself."

The smith raised a hand to his face and gazed at it in surprise when it came away sooty and wet. "You don't say."

Once the stinging had abated somewhat, Kadav ventured another look inside the hut. Dense smoke was rising from the furnace, but instead of dispersing up the flue, it formed an angry knot against the ceiling. An outside examination of the chimney revealed the problem. The stone aperture was too small in relation to the fire bed below, and the beginnings of a sparrow's nest was keeping most of the smoke from getting through. "Lueker, that bastard. Leave it to him to build a flue." Turning to the smith, he said, "Hand me something, will you."

Argon fished in a pocket.

"Something long," he clarified.

The smith ducked inside and returned a moment later with what Kadav instantly recognized as the poker shovel. Now it was a chimney sweep shovel, he chuckled to himself.

"Something funny, mayor?" the smith asked.

"Nothing. Nothing at all." Kadav dislodged the sparrow's nest with a couple of jabs, allowing the smoke to plume out once more. There's one thing fixed, he thought. If only the rest of his problems could be solved so easily.

When Kadav returned to the worksite, he found it all but abandoned. Failure settled over his shoulders like a smothering blanket.

"Excuse me, mayor." Someone tugged at his shirtsleeve. It was Bert, the town drunk. "I brung you some water." He held up a half full pail; the other half was soaking his breeches. "When I seen you coming, I says to myself, 'Now there's a man could use himself a drink.'"

Realizing just how thirsty he was, Kadav took the pail in both hands and gulped down the better part of it.

"Say—" Bert tipped forward, nearly losing his balance. He was not very coordinated sober. "You wouldn't happen to have some of that summer ale left? I ain't had a drop of licker for an age. Got me feeling dry as a bone."

"Come to think ofit," Kadav said. "I could use a drop myself."

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