The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 73)

Finding Arnoll was a simple matter. He was at work in his armor smithy as usual.

When Gael emerged from the tunnel from the Lake Stair, the familiar sounds, sights, and smells enveloped him: the roar of the furnaces, the clang of hammer on bronze, the orange glow of the forges at the heart of the dim space, the long shafts of sunlight piercing the shadows from the deep embrasures on the west wall behind the annealing smithy, the warm scent of woodsmoke mingling with the sharper aromas of hot metal and cold stone. Now he felt like he’d come home.

Belzetarn . . . might signify the cruelty, the violence, and the instability of the truldemagar, but the tower’s smithies felt safe and comfortable and predictable. He had made them so.

Arnoll, the instant he caught sight of Gael, dropped his hammer and surged around his anvil to grip Gael’s shoulders, looking him up and down. “You’re well? You took no harm on your journey?” he questioned.

“None,” Gael reassured him, smiling slightly. “How goes it here?”

Arnoll refused to be hurried away from his concern, scrutinizing Gael’s face an interval before he nodded. “All is well here also,” he answered. “But stay a moment. If you will?”

“I need to confer with you as well,” said Gael.

Arnoll turned back to his anvil, directing one of the undersmiths to take over there. Then he drew Gael into the nearest of the four embrasures in the north wall at the back of his smithy, leading him along the stone channel all the way to the broad stone sill below the arrow slit looking onto the lake.

The sun sparkled on the blue water, and the forested hills rising from the many narrow inlets glowed green and verdant beneath the open sky, dark and mysterious under the patches of cloud. It seemed a shame that they must turn their backs on the magnificent scenery in order to sit on the sill, but Gael almost preferred the view of the smithy, there at the other end of the embrasure channel. Arnoll shifted himself sideways, leaning his shoulders against the wall and propping one foot nonchalantly up on the sill.

Gael studied his friend. Arnoll had been concerned for Gael’s well-being, but the smith was the elder, and a troll could age swiftly. Was Arnoll all right?

His sturdy form beneath his smith’s apron seemed as burly and strong as ever, his seated pose as relaxed as usual. His eyes were as warm a blue and no more tired than the early afternoon warranted. His curly gray was confined to a typical smith’s knot, to keep it out of the way.

Yes, Arnoll was well. Thank Tiamar.

Gael pushed down his momentary qualm.

“Keir managed superlatively while you were gone,” said Arnoll. “Nathiar left him strictly alone, and Theron—so far from encroaching, as we feared—gathered every last scullion and porter and messenger under his control in the artisans’ yard, so that he could harangue them on the necessity of showing Keir extra respect.”

Arnoll frowned. “The castellanum’s been too smooth, trying too hard. Too cordial to Keir.” The smith’s frown deepened. “He can’t possibly believe he could woo Keir from your service, could he?”

“No.” Gael was certain of that. Well, not certain of Theron’s intention, but certain of Keir’s allegiance. Theron might prod the tally chamber hard from many different angles, but he would never winkle Keir out from under Gael’s wing.

Arnoll darted a swift glance at Gael before looking back over the lake through the arrowslit.

The smith grunted. “You’ve heard what happened with the tower scullions and the gong? Theron was furious with the boys.”

“Is the story really all over Belzetarn as the regenen seems to believe?” asked Gael.

“Oh, yes.” Arnoll sighed. “Even the hunters out in the forest are gossiping about it, with wild variations depending on how accurate a tale was told by their messenger.”

“I was hoping Carbraes had exaggerated,” said Gael.

Arnoll cocked an eyebrow.

Gael sighed. “I know. Since when does Carbraes exaggerate about anything? He doesn’t. But he now feels pushed to nullify the gong as soon as may be. Tomorrow, if I can make it so.”

“Unfortunate,” murmured Arnoll. “Never a good idea to be hurried into a challenging and delicate undertaking.” Arnoll shared Gael’s preference for a methodical approach to important tasks. Perhaps all smiths did. Working with molten metal required method. Unless you were Martell.

“Will you help me?” said Gael. He’d meant to lead up to his request via logical progression. Why had he been so abrupt?

“What do you need me to do?” asked Arnoll.

That was why Gael had been direct. Apparently he’d gotten over his friend’s theft of an ingot completely. He trusted Arnoll to have his back. It was that simple.

“Are you willing to work with Nathiar?” Gael asked.

“The magus?” said Arnoll, as though there might be another troll of that name in Belzetarn.

“I compared his words to his deeds while I lay at Olluvarde,” said Gael.

“And?” Arnoll sounded skeptical.

“It’s a long story,” said Gael.

“And we have much to accomplish, if that gong is to be subdued tomorrow. I’ll take your word on Nathiar then. You’ll want the smithies emptied while we work?” said Arnoll.

Gael nodded, taking his sketches from his satchel.

“I’ll arrange for the smiths to wrap up early today, and I’ll proclaim tomorrow a day of rest for the forges,” declared Arnoll.

“Thank you.” It felt good to shift a vaultful of necessary chores onto Arnoll’s capable shoulders. “This is the program Nathiar and I have worked out for how to proceed.”

Arnoll added a few cogent suggestions as Gael made his explanations, both of them referencing the energetic diagrams from Olluvarde. The troll-smith might not be a mage, but he’d witnessed the slipped nodes and stretched arcs of countless fugitives entering Belzetarn, and he was a peerless metalworker.

“Any questions?” asked Gael as he concluded.

“I’ll have an apronful in the morning.” Arnoll grinned. “But you’ll review the entire sequence before we start, and I’ll ask them then.”

“Are you sure you want to join this mad venture?” Now that it was settled, Gael’s qualms rose anew.

Arnoll snorted. “I see the danger, Gael. Stop trying to coddle me, and get yourself up to the tally room. You’ll need to brief Keir, hear his report, and let the boy know that he’ll be doing your job for another few days yet. ” The corner of Arnoll’s mouth twitched. “You do realize the gong will keep you too busy for much else, do you not?”

Gael stifled a laugh. The tally room was where he’d intended to go next.

Arnoll was always a step ahead, which was why Gael wanted him in the fight against the gong’s curse.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 74)

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