Kamik heaved the iron box onto the cart, her muscles aided by anger as well as decades of blacksmithing. Her next push centered its weight on the polished boards.
As she threw a rope over the box with more force than necessary, Techan appeared by her shoulder. “Let me give you a hand, old woman.”
Behind him, the market square blazed unnaturally bright, silhouetting the bonfire dancers. Smoke drifted to the dark sky above where the god Welmit nibbled away the moon. The dancers would tire soon and the moon would return, allowing the villagers a few hours of sleep before the craftspeople’s pilgrimage would begin.
“No need, old man.” She ran rope through the cart’s worn side slats.
Techan brushed a strip of birch bark off his shoulder and stretched out his gnarled, chisel-scarred fingers for the other end of the rope. “You could have affixed iron loops to the sides of the chest. Easier to tie it down.” The iron chest was not designed to be transported but, among her completed pieces, the priest had deemed it her only sufficiently complex craftwork. The beaten iron side panels, the thick fire-proofing layer of fluffrock, and the heavy lid were almost more than Kamik’s wooden cart could support. Loading it into the cart just so she could watch it burn in Welmit’s Maw, the lava-filled mountain to the east, made it feel all the heavier.
“I could have done a lot of things,” she said, yanking her knot tight.
As Kamik and Techan started to load the gear piled by the cottage doorway, their neighbor strode by, strips of birch bark wound tight in her hair. Markith’s teeth gleamed in the firelight and she shouted well wishes across the darkness, making the cart horse stir in her traces. Kamik paused in her work only long enough to wave a hand.
Close on Markith’s heels, the village priest trotted past, solemn as always. He glanced at the chest and gave the sign of blessing, crossing one wrist over the other, palms inward, then thumping his fists against his shoulders.
Kamik fiddled with a knot and pretended not to see.
Techan, of course, returned the blessing, holding the gesture until the priest was nothing but a narrow black shape against the bonfire. As a cough took him, his fists dropped and he clutched his stomach. The low hacking sounds carried over the reveling dancers’ shouts. Like beetles consuming the heartwood of an ancient tree, Techan’s cancers were eating him from the inside out.
Finally, he slowed and spit noisily. Kamik heaved a tool bag into the cart, barely glancing at the glossy black mass of blood that spattered across the iron band of the cart wheel and the toe of her boot. She kept her tone even. “I see I’ll be taking your blood along the overroad, even if your stubborn self will be fighting marsh bugs.”
Techan wiped his lips then snorted. “The overroad! You’re really going to go that route, like a common merchant? Just to save two days of devout contemplation? Pah!”
“Welmit shouldn’t care how a person gets there, as long as they throw away their life’s work when they do,” Kamik said, thumping a barrel of fresh water down beside the iron chest. “The overroad is perfectly all right to use, you old fool. The priest and his most devout followers—”
“The priest is an upstart, promoted beyond his abilities. And as for Welmit’s devout followers having built it, I wasn’t asked to help, was I?” Techan thumped a fist on the cart’s sideboard, making the mare startle.
Despite her simmering anger, Kamik managed not to point out that only the young and healthy had been asked to cut down trees, move rocks, and apply the clever slurry that hardened and coated the new overroad. Techan didn’t need a reminder of his age; just getting out of his cot in the morning was reminder enough of that.
“Just be glad I’m coming, old man.” She moved away from him and slung her kit bag aboard. Unable to hold in her thoughts, she muttered below her breath. “Welmit’s doctrines, senseless, destructive. Making us burn up treasures in his maw, doing no good for any one. Might as well throw in the village and all the people too.”
Techan drew in his breath with a loud sniff. His ears must be better than she had thought. She could feel her face redden.
His voice was dangerously low. “You presume to say what Welmit should and shouldn’t care about?” He uttered a short prayer, an apology to Welmit—as if it had been he that had blasphemed—and crossed his arms with hard shoulder thumps. “You presume too much, old woman.”
Kamik gripped a sideboard. “Just be glad I’m willing to throw the fireproof chest into the only forge hotter than my own! It took me three years to perfect, as you well know! I’ll be left with nothing but a drawing of my proudest creation and for what? A sacrifice to a god I no longer believe in!”
Techan stepped into the shadow of the cottage as two giggling pottery apprentices stumbled past, oblivious to their argument. “Hush, woman! The neighbors have big ears.”
“And hard hearts,” she said loudly, not caring who heard. She placed a foot on the running board and threw her bedding onto the seat. Lack of a sacrifice to Welmit required a person to leave the village, to travel “until the nuts and fruits themselves are unfamiliar” and to never return. The penalty was so severe, she had never known anyone to go against the doctrine.
She stepped down, turning toward him. The dangling birch bark entwined in his hair did nothing to soften the planes of his face. She touched his shoulder. “I’ll do what I’m supposed to do, like I always have. Not for the priest, nor for you, old man. For Garva’s sake, and the babe’s. A child should have a grandmother.” Their daughter’s stomach had barely started to swell but Kamik had stayed up all last night making her a supply of herbal tonics for the days Kamik would be journeying. She had taken great pains to follow the exact recipe copied from the priest’s scrolls, cooking the herbs in the small metal stove box that she had installed after the chimney fire.
Two steps took her to their cottage doorway where she grabbed a small crate from a stack of three. “This is my traveling food. I’ve packed you twelve days’ worth,” she said, her voice gruff, nodding at the remaining boxes. “Bring your cart around and we’ll load it.” Kamik had forbade herself to assist him that morning in loading his own sacrifice into his battered and ancient cart. The graceful wooden chair, which rocked at the touch of a finger, was light enough that offering to help pack it would have only wounded his pride.
“I don’t need twelve days of food. Just six.” Techan’s voice was flat.
It took her a moment to manage the sharp tone he’d be expecting. “Not planning on coming back, is that what you’re saying? Trying to shock me, are you, old man? Forty years together in this cottage, I know what you’re thinking. And, you’re wrong, you will come back and you’ll be around long enough to see Garva birth her child.”
She could not see his face in the dying light of the distant bonfire. It was a moment before he spoke. “I have already said the nine moon prayers for her babe.”
Kamik set down the crate before it fell from her fingers. Saying the moon prayers in advance of the birth was against doctrine, against all tradition unless death was clearly inevitable. Techan really did believe his cancers would send him upward to the endless sun. Had he been hiding his stomach pain more than she knew? Or was he just disheartened at the way growing older ground a person down like spices in a pestle?
For a long moment she busied herself placing the food crate in the storage area below the cart’s seat before swinging back down onto the rutted road. One foot slipped and she landed on her bad knee. She stayed in the welcome shadow of the cart for a moment before rising, crouching in the bitter-smelling mud that had grown slick with strips of birch bark.
There was nothing Kamik wanted more than to have this pilgrimage over and done, and both of them back safe. However, despite an early start each morning of the four-day journey, despite not stopping at any villages along the way, she was not the first to arrive at Welmit’s Maw. Markith had forced her horse and cart past Kamik on the last stretch of the overroad, where the forests gave way to open grassland followed by bare rock. The fierce eagerness on Markith’s face as she had passed, eagerness to toss her river raft with the clever deerhide floatbags into the inferno, made her normally pleasant face look insane.
Kamik had long since stopped looking back over her shoulder. Behind her, a long line of carts stretched, full of all the other mad and driven folk.
Techan was not among them.
Of all the village craftspeople, only Techan had chosen the more traditional route along the underroad. It would be two more days before Kamik could expect him to arrive at the Maw. Kamik’s heart, which Techan once described as clad in the strongest iron, ached more than her swollen knee. She should have gone on the underroad, foolish as it might be.
“Give me a hand, neighbor?” The shout from ahead demanded a response. Markith had already reined in at the largest of the open, smoking lava pits and unstrapped her raft. Her voice rasped like Techan’s after long hours in a smoky workshop. Kamik should have crafted her an iron stove too but, in the past few years, she had not found the time, spending every spare moment on the fireproof chest.
There was scarcely room to squeeze between Markith’s raft and cart bench. The woman must have slept uncomfortably on the narrow bench the whole journey.
A push from them both and the raft slid on its wobbly leather underbags through the cart’s open gate. Kamik scarcely had time to notice the tiny careful stitching on the bags before the raft sunk into the fuming depths of the pit. The molten rock seethed, mirroring the colors of the late afternoon sun.
Kamik reluctantly echoed Markith’s crossed-arm blessing before clambered down off the woman’s cart onto the shiny black rock that ringed the smoking crater.
“Welmit renews all!” Markith’s wrinkles creased in a smile as she climbed back onto her cart bench and slapped the reins. Her horse pulled the cart forward on the path between the open pits. Words drifted back over her shoulder: “Your turn, Kamik.”
Her turn. Her turn to throw years of work into the fires of one of Welmit’s many maws. It had hurt three summers ago, the last time Welmit had eaten the moon, when she had tossed in a wrought iron lantern and it would hurt more now.
“Hurry up, then!” A young apprentice, one of old Perga the weaver’s boys, held his horse’s reins and gestured impatiently at the pit. Behind, others climbed down from their carts.
“Give me a minute. I’m in contemplation. Have you no respect for doctrine?” Kamik frowned at the boy.
She slowly loosened one rope that held the chest fast.
Doctrine had made her take this pilgrimage.
Doctrine said the fireproof chest she had worked on so long should be consumed by Welmit’s greed.
Anger filled her.
Why should an ancient destructive tradition, probably developed by a priest who had never lifted a brush nor carved a stick in his life, dictate what she should do?
When would she become old enough to outgrow this childish custom?
Why did Techan willingly undergo such needless suffering?
Her horse shifted uneasily in its harness. The shouts behind her grew louder as the queue of villagers grew more impatient. Welmit would bring bad fortune to the entire village if any one of them failed to burn their offerings before sunset of the day of arrival.
“Kamik, elder. Why do you delay? Do you not want to feel the ecstasy that comes from sacrifice?” She had not seen the priest approach. He spoke mildly but with narrowed eyes.
“I’m sorry, Priest, forgive me.”
“Only Welmit can forgive, elder. And he will be grateful for this sacrifice. If this chest can protect our written doctrines from fire, then the improved chests you build in ensuing years will please him as well. Your offering is both clever and worshipful.”
“Thank you, priest.”
“However, I’m sure you don’t want to deny the others their turn. It will be evening soon.” The priest’s face grew sly. “And you don’t want to miss seeing the tiny face of your new grandchild, I assume?”
Kamik clenched a fist behind her back. She cast around for excuses. “I must wait, Priest. I must wait for Techan to arrive so we can experience the ecstasy together. It will be his last chance to do so.”
She almost bared her teeth in grim pleasure when the priest hesitated. She had finally shut the man up.
He raised a finger. “I…I would have to pray on it but I do believe it may not satisfy our living god, our sacred god, Welmit. Such an action, however kind it may seem, is not necessary according to the doctrines.
“It is necessary to me. In fact, I must go find him.” She climbed into her cart. A slap of the reins and her mare broke into a brisk trot.
The priest’s shouted prayer for her soul and for the village fortunes grew faint behind her. She kept up the harsh commands until the mare was almost at a gallop and the cart was swaying, until the fork in the road was in sight.
She pulled the reins. “Whoa.”
If she turned left, this path would loop back to the overroad with its fast dry track, and she could be warm in her cottage in just four days. She might never see Techan again but that was Welmit’s way, creating people who lived solitary lives, even those that shared a cottage. She had heard that there were lands where it was different, where people led their lives as a couple, compromising at every turn, but such a practice seemed hard to fathom. There were no reasons, no doctrine, no promises that required her to turn to the right, down the unkempt underroad toward Techan. He would not expect her to do so. The pitted underroad, treacherous in the growing darkness, threaded between open lava pits, pits no longer used for sacrifices due to their propensity to cave in at the edges.
She glanced back at the smoke-filled landscape behind her. Beside the queue, the priest was looking her way, one hand on his brow to shield the setting sun. She crossed her arms as if in prayer and mumbled a short apology to Garva and the unborn babe before ostentatiously thumping her shoulders. The mare whinnied in surprise when she yanked the reins, forcing the cart to the right, to the underroad.
As the moon rose, the mare picked her way, slowly, steadily. Kamik’s head began to nod. Sleep had been scarce the last four days.
A jerk broke Kamik’s gentle doze. The mare avoided some brambles, leading the cart over a particularly stony stretch. A faint glow from the ground ahead decided the matter and Kamik called a soft “whoa”. A quick exploration revealed a bubbling, steaming spring next to a small lava pit. It would give her hot water for her dirty face, maybe even a bath.
She pushed aside some stunted birches exposing the pit further, a concave opening agleam with hot red coals. Molten lava, crimson and black, flowed down one side, disappearing into a crack. The pit was old, abandoned. The lava must have resurged out this vent just today—a sign of Welmit’s wrath with her. No, she shook her head, still half-asleep. This was simple good fortune. Perhaps she could heat up her supper too.
An idea occurred to her and she sketched it idly in her mind. If she could make the chest smaller, the size of a flask, she could keep her dinner hot for hours. A fine idea that would take some tinkering to work. A wave of homesickness swept over her. Oh, to be in her workshop, pumping the bellows at her forge, pounding iron on her anvil until sparks flew. The things she could invent!
The fireproof chest was only the beginning. She pictured the drawings she had left behind. All the details of how she had beaten the side panels to the perfect thickness—tough enough to withstand most cottage fires. How she had found the right combination of coal and size of forge to make the fluffrock expand and pop like corn kernels. She had drawn the diagrams on fine deerskin and left them on the hearth at home, as if challenging Welmit to burn them while she was gone. It had only been a few years since her careless housekeeping had caused the fire that had consumed all of her and Techan’s lifetime of records. Now, it seemed almost as if another person had lived that life. Another person had built that chest.
A new thought struck her: here at this tiny pit, she could give the iron chest the ultimate fireproofing test. The cart held a small shovel, useful for wheels stuck in the mud. That and the water bucket should do.
She approached the smoking pit, shifted her feet to a firmer footing, paused as yet another thought struck her, and began to scoop the almost molten rock.
It was not until late in the third day along the underroad that she found him, where a widening marsh had softened the road. Techan’s cart lay tipped at the road edge, the broken wooden axle raw and white against a large moss-covered boulder.
She rushed forward. Why had she not crafted him an iron axle? Why hadn’t she strengthened the iron bands that wrapped the wheels?
Techan’s horse raised its head from where it was hobbled in a drier patch that was still more reeds than grass. Where was the old fool?
“I’m over here, woman.” The voice was weak but—Kamik was relieved to hear—sounded irritated.
He lay at the edge of the marsh on a pile of wet leaves. He had apparently gathered wood some time ago but not managed to light a fire.
“Techan. Are you hurt, my one?”
He looked startled and she realized she had not used that particular endearment for several years. She touched his weathered hand.
He began to answer but coughing wracked his thin cheeks. The food crates she had packed for him all those days ago lay nearby, looking almost untouched.
“There was no point in you coming,” he finally managed to say. “I will not complete the pilgrimage.”
“Shush,” she answered, as if he were a child. She began to gather fir boughs, chopping off the springy green branches with her hand axe.
By sundown, she had made him a comfortable bed and cobbled together a broth from dried deer meat and herbs.
The fire crackled, sending sparks up into the darkness. Techan managed to swallow a few spoonfuls of broth before he set the bowl aside.
“Are you well enough to sit up, old man?”
“There is no point in tending to me, I keep telling you. I will not make it to Welmit’s Maw. I may as well close my eyes here and not open them. To have promised that chair to Welmit,”—he gestured at his tipped cart—”and not sacrificed it, it’s blasphemy. I will die a blasphemer.” He closed his eyes to drive the point home.
“Silly old fool.”
Kamik re-hitched her mare and backed her cart across the sodden uneven ground until the rear end was steps from where Techan lay. She snuck a look and was pleased to see the firelight reflecting in his watching eyes.
She walked over to Techan’s ruined cart and rescued the rocking chair. The seat back—carved into an image of Welmit’s many fiery mouths—caught the firelight.
Techan had closed his eyes again.
“It’s fine, not even a crack,” she said. “You can stop pretending you’re not looking.”
“Taking the chair yourself to Welmit’s Maw does not cease to make me a blasphemer. I must witness the sacrifice. Did you forget that, old woman?”
“Fortune favors you, old man.” Kamik set the chair carefully on a clump of marsh grass next to her cart.
Techan cracked open an eye.
She used a stout branch to pry open the fireproof chest. The lid lifted then crumbled. Smoke and heat surrounded her and she fell back, coughing hard. After a moment, eyes streaming, she was able to see the coals she had shoveled in were still fiery hot. A river of lava cut a channel as she watched, oozing like scarlet mud. Sure enough, the chest had held the temperature steady.
She could not hide the pride in her voice. “There is nothing in the priest’s doctrines that prevents Welmit’s Maw, or a few buckets of it, coming to you, old man, is there? That should be just as worshipful as you visiting the Maw.”
Techan tilted his head to one side, as he considered her words.
Kamik sat on the fallen log she had pulled close. Side by side, they watched the lava cool, swirling into patterns of red and black, much as they had watched the fire in their hearth every evening all those years.
“Yes, dear one?”
“Do you know why Welmit wants the sacrifices? Why he designed such a practice?”
Kamik threw a twig on the fire in disgust. “Your last few words, and you want to waste it by explaining doctrine to me? Do you know me at all?”
Techan continued as if she hadn’t spoken, “Why did you make the chest?”
“Because I wanted to protect all of our diagrams, since I can’t protect the craftwork itself from Welmit’s greed, his complete and total avarice.” It felt good to have somewhere to direct her anger.
“Why did you want to protect the diagrams?” His voice was as patient as the stars overhead.
Kamik practically sputtered. “The waste, you old fool, the waste, burning all the good craftwork we create!”
“If you could have kept the chest, would you have made the diagrams? If there were no sacrifices to Welmit, would your mother have been as diligent in teaching you the blacksmithing arts? Would you have been as diligent in teaching Garva? Would Markith have taught her sons to make those clever boats?” His voice was thin but sure.
Kamik sat straighter.
“Perhaps not,” she conceded after a moment, rubbing her knee. Could Techan be right? Would every minute detail of the village’s craft knowledge and artistry be completely communicated to other generations if not for Welmit’s demands? Would the younger villagers have created such a clean fast road surface if the trip to the Maw had not been necessary?
Techan rose up on one elbow. “Don’t believe in Welmit’s powers, old woman. But do believe in Welmit’s results. They work.” Coughing wracked him. “Take an apprentice, pass on the knowledge, record what you can and keep it in many marvelous chests like this one. Maybe even burn an offering or two.” More coughing. “No matter where you end up.”
Techan lay back, his energy spent.
A crooked glowing line appeared along the left seam of the chest. It, too, was at the end of its natural lifespan.
He was right. Without sacrifices to Welmit, the village would not have so many marvelous things. They would live in mud and squalor, dying young, like people did in other lands. The offerings were an essential part of a complex, deliberately repetitive system that passed on knowledge from one villager to the next, from one generation to the next.
Kamik rose and held the rocking chair in her strong blacksmith’s hands. With snapping sounds like splintering bones, she broke it into several pieces, the chair that Techan had shortened his life for, the chair that Garva would never use to rock her babe to sleep.
Piece by piece, she fed the bits of chair into the smoking contents of the fireproof chest. Techan watched closely, his face slack but his eyes bright until the last piece was consumed.
Later, much later, as she held Techan’s body in her lap waiting for the dawn, she realized a new village, a new start so far away that the trees themselves were unfamiliar, meant the chest’s design would now travel much further than the nearby villages—banishment was yet another way to keep the new knowledge secure.
Welmit—or whoever had designed the doctrines—had thought of everything. She slowly raised one fist and thumped it against her shoulder.