Black Iron's Glory - Chapter 121

"Your concoction worked well. His external injuries should be okay. We should get back to town as quickly as possible, regardless. His fever isn't going down," Makro said, his hand resting on Eriksson's forehead.

Miltiny's sails strung heavy in the strong wind that had kicked up shortly after the away party had boarded again and the ship made for the bay and Whitestag beyond it with all haste.

Eriksson lay fastened in one of the cabins, naked, his wet clothes in a bundle in one corner of the room. He'd just been fed half a bottle of Claude's potion and the rest had been lathered liberally over his numerous wounds. Claude couldn't decide whether he wanted him to wake up and give them all some relief, or if he wanted him to remain unconscious and spare him the agony through which his wounds would put him.

Welikro sat at bedside and wiped Eriksson's forehead almost compulsively. The bucket was full of cold water from the sea. Salt crystals had already started forming in his hair where the water had dried over and over again.

They didn't have a choice, however. They'd rushed back to the ship after finding him without thinking about getting fresh water. At first they'd wrapped him under blankets to get the temperature in his extremities back up to healthy levels, but now his fever was pushing it to the other extreme and they had to cool him down however they could. Given how much alcohol they'd been given, no one had bothered filling the water tank.

"He must have pushed for the shore after his boat started breaking up. He must have run into a reef along the way. The crash broke his ship and the sudden stop threw him overboard, onto an outcrop, and that's what tore him up so badly. The salt's kept his wounds clean, but the blood loss and the pain must have made him pass out. Given his current condition I'd say he's been here at least since last night. If you guys hadn't insisted on coming, he would have died here," Makro said, carefully not mentioning that the boy's death was still a very distinct possibility.

"He's not cooling down at all!" Claude shouted desperately.

"Cold water and a wet cloth won't do much for that kind of fever. It should keep it low enough so that his brain won't stop working. I still have some whiskey left, rub some of it onto his skin."

Claude stared at him incredulously, but did as he said when he brought the bottle. To his surprise, it actually did help. His fever lowered somewhat, though it was still worryingly high, but most importantly, his breaths grew stronger and deeper.

Claude gave Welikro a light kick and shoved him out of the cabin.

"Go get changed before you end up like Eyke. I'll keep an eye on him."

Welikro just frowned at Claude then ignored him and focused on Eyke.

"Go! I'll throw you overboard if you fall sick as well!" Claude snapped.

Welikro's eyes shot to him, saw the utter conviction in his friend's eyes, shivered, and left.

Claude sighed with relief, then turned to Eriksson. Welikro and Eriksson had grown even closer since the four had split up to do their own things. They were more like brothers than friends now. Even worse, Welikro was the type to blame himself for everything that happened, warranted or not.

Welikro had nearly joined his friend in the sand when he'd thought he'd died. When he heard he was still alive, he insisted on carrying him back alone, not even Claude was allowed to so much as suggest he could help.

Claude didn't think about it too much. He was just happy they'd found him in time. He doubted it would have ended with just Eriksson's death, if he knew anything about Welikro. If it didn't kill him too, it would surely have ruined him.

Miltiny thrust through the water at full sail, her schooner rig showing their worth. Her masts bucked and groaned dangerously, but Makro pushed her as hard as he dared.

Two hours had now passed since they'd applied the whiskey. Claude and Welikro shoved blankets back over him, but his teeth continued to chatter.

"The cold must've chilled his bones. He'll start burning up again soon. We're still far from out of the woods. We should give him some whiskey. It's all we can do for now," Claude sighed.

Welikro poured a cup of whiskey down Eriksson's throat, and his teeth calmed, though he didn't stop shivering for a while. He soon started sweating, and they were back to uncovering him and wiping him down with a seawater cloth. And so they seesawed back and forth between warming and cooling him for the next two days while the ship made for Whitestag.

Miltiny docked on the 24th of the 11th month. Claude and Welikro had hardly slept more than a couple of seconds at a time for the entire trip and could barely stand.

Eilina was waiting for them on the dock as had become her habit since they'd departed, and had nearly dove into the water and swum to meet them when she recognised Miltiny's rigging. Her aid had kept her from doing something so rash, but he could not keep her from leaping onto the ship well before it had been properly secured, in fact, she'd leapt as soon as she was reasonably certain she could make it to the bobbing deck. Makro had to hold her against the mizzen mast and explain that Eriksson had to go to the apothecary immediately for treatment before she stopped fighting to go see her boy.

Ankess carried Eriksson off the ship and to the carriage, and it sped off to the apothecary. Makro and Eilina followed on its heels. Claude and Welikro, however, had passed out the moment they'd felt the boat stop rocking as the anchor lines secured it to the dock. Krin had to wake them and send them ashore so he could take the ship back to its moorings and officially hand it back to its rightful owner.

The two disembarked immediately and were greeted by Pegg. Claude gave him a brief summary of what had happened before leaving with the carriage. He dropped Welikro off at home, arranged to meet him at Eriksson's place, and headed home.

He came to the wood just in time to smell smoke. Thick clouds bellowed from the hills beyond the manor. The shock drove his exhaustion from him and he charged the carriage to the manor. Jemmy darted along the road furiously, nearly throwing the carriage on several occasions. The pair arrived at the manor, panting, but nothing seemed to be on fire.

Claude's mind turned to the old couple, who he had yet to see, and his spine cooled. He charged Jemmy around the grounds, shouting for them, but they didn't answer. He came back to the manor and stared at the smoke, which he could now tell was bellowing up from near the stream. His mind whirred and a single thought burst through. Hadn't Siori asked if they could make charcoal?

His heart started beating again, and he headed for the root of the column of smoke. His mind was blank when he crested the last bit of dead ground and saw the stream. 'The Old Charcoal Seller' by Bai Juyi swam into his mind.

'Both temples have ashen white hair, all ten fingers have blackened...'

In front of him stood two black figures, the Sioris, scooping charcoal from a mound into a sack while several mounds nearby were smouldering, pumping black smoke into the sky. They'd cleaned out the slope on the other side of the stream completely, bare soil stared back at Claude from foot to crest, and a couple shacks nearby were already half-full with charcoal sacks.

The charcoal mounds were built out of wood, covered in clay, with a single vent made at the crest, and a number dotting the base. The wood was lit through the vent holes, and it was allowed to burn until the flames started licking at the rim of the top vent. Everything was then sealed, and it was left to smoulder until it had cooled.

The couple clearly had had a lot of practice; the charcoal they were currently shovelling was clean and glassy, the best quality.

The couple were so busy with their work they didn't even notice Claude's hasty arrival and the two nearly jumped when Jemmy's sneeze alerted them to another presence.

"Supervisor Claude, you're... you're back," Siori greeted immediately.

"Those are?" Claude asked, pointing at the sheds.

"This... well..." Siori stammered, mustering a guilty smile, "Well, you see, Supervisor Claude, as we were gathering withered trees and fallen leaves, we also cleared out some of the overgrowth in the wood. Those are mostly old and withering trees. We thought it would be a waste to just throw them away, so we decided to make charcoal out of all the wood we'd gathered."

Claude jammed his heels into Jemmy's side and the horse lurched forward. He circled the chopped wood waiting to be stacked, inspecting it carefully. The wood was cracked and grey as withered wood should be, he could see no fresh cuttings, so he returned to the couple.

"Very well. Move everything to the storehouse. I doubt the Madam will run out of charcoal for a while. And drop a sack off at my villa when you're done."

Siori bowed and nodded with a bright smile.

"Of course, of course. I understand. I'll bring you a sack later."

Claude nodded, then turned around and headed back to the main grounds. He'd caught the couple red-handed. While they hadn't cut down any fresh wood, they were clearly not just making charcoal for themselves. They were no doubt planning to sell the charcoal in town. Claude decided to let it be this time since they had not touched any of the useable trees, though he would naturally take much of their charcoal to fill the manor storehouse. If they'd touched any of the younger trees, he'd have had to kick them off the estate and charge them with theft.

Such was his responsibility. Everything belonged to his mistress, and it was his duty, directly entrusted to him by his mistress, to look after her wood. The couple couldn't fell any trees, especially not useable trees, without his permission, and, as far as the younger trees were concerned, he had no right to give it to them.

He'd given them permission to make the charcoal under the impression it would be just a couple of trees for the estate's winter supply. He'd not thought they would try and sneak an industrial-commercial operation by under his nose. He could demand a share of their profit, but he had little interest in having an unnecessary fight with them, so he was willing to let them sell whatever surplus they had left after they'd filled the storehouse, this time.

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