Grasping the Nettle
A Tale of the Dæmon-Haunted World
Chapter One - Touching Iron
The sky was clear and cloudless as it had been for weeks. The leaves of small birch trees that hung on to existence in small depressions on the bedrock were turning yellow and dropping in the warm weather. Crops in the wide fields were struggling to grow. Creatures grumbled about the dry weather and the fact that not one sorry wizard was able to do a thing about it. June dragged on into the beginning of August as their worry increased.
Rodney scrambled along a branch and jumped across a wide gap. He landed in the thick branches of an ancient white oak. Its leaves were longer than his arms and legs. Running around in its branches he moved his head from side to side feeling for the source deep below. His ears buzzed here and there as he reached out and felt for the tree’s source of water in the green depths. There was no great upwelling here but rather the slow seep of water flowing through cracks in the shale. Around the other side it wasn’t any better. Even the great tree struggled to hold onto its leaves in the long dry summer. The water was nearly out of reach of those roots that went so deep.
The squirrel hung upside-down from a branch by his toes and unslung his staff from across his back. Waving it gave him a wider field in which he could feel for the familiar cool flow of water. Still, there was very little. No digging here would yield even the slightest flow into a well. The greedy roots of trees would suck it up as the water table fell.
He let himself fall and used his tail to turn his body in the air. He landed on his paws like a cat. The squirrel took his notebook from his little pack and scribbled notes and a small map. There wasn’t one hidden stream or upwelling here in many acres of forest. The nearest stream came down from the ridge nearly half a mile away and flowed through fields into the Waal river two miles distant. Leaves rustled beneath his paws as he scurried across open ground, an expanse of dry grass that covered the workings of the ancients.
Beneath his paws was a centuries-old water channel lined with concrete that had long gone dry. He poked his head into a dark opening that had once been an inspection hatch and sniffed. The cool air smelled of dry fungus. Once, water flowed through this concrete river from the mountains to the distant city. This section wasn’t tunneled through solid rock like most of its distance. It was a cut-and-cover section from the point the aqueduct came out from under a crag of white quartzite and continued along a curving level path until it dropped down a nearly vertical underground tunnel to a section of tunnel that passed under the river. That section still held some stagnant water but was far too deep to raise water from.
He walked along the channel, feeling the ghost of the water that had flowed beneath his paws for more than a century. On the slope below spread the apple orchard whose owner was looking for a new well. The dry leaves of the trees rustled in the hot breeze. Rodney sat on a piece of ancient cement and flipped through his notebook again. He’d noted the particulars of where the Kleine Brook passed under the aqueduct and where old dams had stood.
He looked off in the distance to the old gate tower, which was barely visible above the trees. A line of long-dry iron pipes ran from one of the old dams to fountains that once flowed into ponds by the tower. Those ponds were long dry. Even the great Humpo marsh nearby was nothing but a puddle of mud and duck potatoes after the dry spring. Birds chirped in the distance and sounded fitful. Hardly a creature stirred. It was a rough time.
Rodney put his notebook away and leaned back on the rough cement. He could feel the thick iron reinforcing rods inside. He closed his eyes. To his senses the metallic iron was hard and deep blue, the surrounding layer of rust a pale red. He touched a bit of exposed rusty iron with his paw. He could taste it on his tongue. The cement made a strange crackling sound as the rebar swelled. A long crack opened all the way from one end of the old cement hatch to the other until the bar had turned entirely to rust. Somehow it always felt so good to rust iron. It was like he was drawing nourishment from it.
The squirrel thought back to the first time he had ever touched iron when he was tiny. He had his first taste from an ancient railroad spike he’d found on the ground in the railroad cutting by Fifth Lake. It was sweet old iron made from local ore with charcoal and forged by a human blacksmith. The rebar was the much more common bessemer steel made in some factory far away and pounded out by a steam trip hammer. Its taste was more bitter and it lacked any interesting texture.
As a little one he didn’t know how strange it was that his touch would nearly instantly turn it to rust. He also had no idea how odd it was for a squirrel to be a water witch. He had assumed other squirrels could feel the water moving beneath the ground and the green sweetness of trees drawing it up their trunks. It was only by chance that he had made use of his ability while hiding out with a group of besieged outlaws. But that time was long past.
The scent of smoke and wet ashes drifted on the breeze. Thankfully no large fires had made it down from the ridge yet but the berry picking was bound to be poor. What berries there were would be tiny and shriveled. The fires bore the promise of great harvests in future years but this year was a hungry one.
Rodney scrambled down the slope to the orchard owner’s cabin. He knocked on the door, causing the latch to rattle. The squirrel knew better than to touch the knocker.
“What?” a voice asked from within.
“It’s me,” Rodney said.
An oddly thin marmot opened the door.
“Any water?” he asked.
“I’m afraid not,” the squirrel replied.
The marmot made a grumping noise and closed the door again.
There was no sense asking for payment when the hole is dry.
Rodney made his way down the track to the hard patchy pavement of the Bruin road and onward to the Rail Road toward Rosedale. The dry black dust of the old railbed clung to his paws, making them feel gritty. Creatures made their way here and there furtively. There wasn’t one cart carrying goods and most of the creatures he met were farm workers. What merchant would be out and about in such a time? Everyone was either poor and hungry or knew they’d be in that condition if the weather didn’t break.
He made his way down the great stone steps past the footings where a trestle had once stood to the wooden bridge into Rosedale. At least water still flowed in the Roundout Creek below the bridge. It wasn’t enough to turn a mill but at least it was there. Only a few carts stood on the street.
Rodney entered the door of the Dragon’s Hoard and stepped carefully around the protective circle inscribed on the floor. The air inside smelled of sweet incense from faraway lands. A tiny mouse sat on a tall stool at the counter. The mouse nodded at him as he went past displays of candles and figurines of strange gods and up the steps to the second floor.
At the top of the steps was a strange wonderland, half plush living room, half magical armory. A life-size dragon mannequin stood wearing shining bronze armor with a sword slung between its wings. Racks of magical swords and staves stood everywhere along with chests he knew, and could feel, contained far more powerful artifacts. He sat on the dusty couch, his paws dangling over the side. He unslung his pack and dropped it on the couch where a pillow would otherwise be. On the low table a divining compass sat in pieces, its brass guts spread out on a piece of paper advertising exotic oils.
Rodney went into the bathroom and crouched in the tub. He ran warm water over his dusty paws, which left a ring of coal dust on the white enamel. He wetted his face and cleaned out his ears. The feeling of any running water at all was so good. He closed the tap, not wanting to waste any more precious water.
His ears perked up at the sound of voices.
Rodney padded into the office, its walls lined with books.
“You’re part of the firefighting squad,” the fat rabbit said, “why not a militia? It’s not like you’re lacking for weapons.”
“But that’s not my business, Sally,” the dragon at the desk responded, “If the town wants to buy weapons that’s my business. I’m not some dragon for hire or adventurer looking to run down criminals. You’ll find plenty of those hanging around any inn in Esopus.”
“But you’re trusted, Jules,” the rabbit said, “You’re a decent merchant, not some lowlife from who-knows-where.”
A crow perched on the back of a chair tilted her head at those words and stared at the dragon with one eye.
“Don’t look at me like that,” the dragon said.
“Nonetheless,” the crow said, “you’re the biggest and most formidable creature in town by far. My archers are fast and deadly but you’re more intimidating than an army of crows. We’d like to have you join our effort. At least consider it.”
“We’ve contracted with your brother for arrowheads,” the rabbit said, “and he’s no more likely to pick up weapons than a stone. You know how he is.”
“Indeed I do,” Jules said, “he’s the finest smith in the county by far, of magical weapons or just white steel and iron. But you won’t get him to fight unless the fight is outside his door. And you won’t get any more out of me.”
The dragon rolled a sphere of lapis lazuli in his claws as the other two sat in silence.
The rabbit sighed.
“Thank you for listening at least, Jules,” she said.
She hopped down from the chair and padded out of the office.
The crow turned his head and gazed at the dragon with his other eye.
“What do you see Jemison?” the dragon asked.
“The usual, Julius,” he responded, “Past and future mostly. I can see that a creature who once picked up weapons will again, perhaps for better cause.”
“Hmf,” Jules said, “I see no such thing happening any time soon.”
The crow hopped down and over to the sill of the open window.
“We’ll see, won’t we?” the crow said and flapped out into the open air.
Rodney clambered up into the chair the rabbit had vacated.
“Why are you such a hardass?” he asked.
Jules poured a huge glass of wine and swirled it under his nose.
“Because my ass is covered with scales,” he said.
The dragon took out a smaller glass and filled it too. He pushed it across the desk.
Rodney sniffed the wine, his whiskers twitching.
“What the heck do they want with a militia anyway?” the squirrel asked, “The army can’t all be off fighting in Delmarva.”
Julius shook his head.
“Highwaymen and thieves, that’s all,” he said, “What’s the point of flying around chasing them? A few coins in the right paws and your goods get through. It’s not much of a worry for me, nor you either.”
“Still,” the squirrel said, “it might be an adventure. You used to do that sort of thing once. That’s how you got that handsome scar under your chin.”
“From a crow archer, no less,” the dragon responded, “and poisoned.”
“You aren’t dead yet, just old and grumpy.”
“I’m not that old,” the dragon said, “Not for a dragon anyway.”
“Ha!” the squirrel said and took a sip of wine.
“What are you grinning about?” Jules asked.
“Well, I’m not that old or that grumpy. Maybe I’ll go see about joining their militia. Do you think they’d want a treerat who can sniff out water?”
“You can sniff out nuts too. I think you’ve got them in your head.”