Saturday, June 26, 2010


The Great Shwamp has a town for everything. Cloth comes from Chelissera, feathers from Meligma, pottery from Woodpot. There is no metal to speak of in the Great Shwamp, so it gets its metalwork from Crucible. There is quite a lot of it there. Lady Peraximander was right when she called it a city of fire and iron. A river of molten iron runs through the center of town. This is what has made the town the area's center of metalworking: it has a seemingly endless supply of iron and no need of fire to melt it.

We could see the town long before we actually came to it. The cloud of smoke and steam it produces is visible for miles, like the plume of a volcano (which, technically, I suppose it is). We didn't see the town itself until we came out of the trees and into the farmland that surrounds it. It was the first time I'd seen a hill in Sedge. Crucible is a great black heap of a town, a mound of black buildings on a black hill, lit like an oven from within. No sun shines through the cloud that hangs over it. The buildings are visible only as firelit silhouettes.

At the outskirts of the town, where the fields gave way to buildings, they also gave way to metal. There was a sheet of it a few inches thick covering the ground. The edge was smooth and rumpled, like wax, as if the metal had flowed molten over the ground and solidified there.

As I later found out, this is exactly what happened. Most of the hill beneath the town is made of iron, built up over centuries by the molten river that springs from its peak; in the soft, stoneless ground of Sedge, that's the only reason there's a hill at all. If the metal didn't spread out so far around the town, the whole thing would probably sink into the ground. It looks like the melted stub of a giant candle. Plants grow in the spaces between flows of iron, where dirt has collected or been exposed by splits in the metal. What streets there are have been melted out of the side of the hill or welded onto it. The melted ones are perfectly flat and mirror-smooth, polished by centuries of feet; the added ones are clattering catwalks of metal gratings. Most of the buildings on the hill are also made of metal, as it's more common that stone and less flammable than wood. With the clanking of the metalworking shops in the background, it's like being in one of the floating cities.

There is so much iron in the water and soil here that even the hair and skin of the people has a rusty reddish tint. It's rare to see any other color that isn't obviously the work of dye. They advise visitors to drink from cisterns of collected rainwater, rather than from the local wells. Like the spores in Sporetower, such a high concentration of metal can be harmful to anyone not raised with it.

The molten river is called the Flare. It follows a meandering path through the streets of the town, making its slow way from the peak to the base of the hill, and fills the streets with the heat of a thousand fires. There are few bridges over it; most people prefer to keep their distance. Strange spires and encrustations have formed all along the banks, like half-melted candles or icicles in black metal. Salamanders perch on them like miniature mountain dragons. Rare in most parts of the world, salamanders breed like rats in Crucible. It's one of the few places above ground that's hot enough for them. It's common to see the small reptiles climbing out of the river, glowing with its heat, shaking the drops of molten iron off of their backs as they look around for edible insects or mice. Most of them don't stay out long. I don't think they'd leave the river at all if they weren't so curious. Salamanders can survive perfectly well on a diet of sunlight and charcoal, but their natural habitat is the inside of a volcano. The ones that live near the surface only leave to find food. They hunt with light and flame, roasting or dazzling their prey before they eat it. The dragons say that there are larger ones down in the depths of the earth, lurking in the sea of fire that lies under the ground, that sea that leaks through in volcanoes and molten places like Crucible. I have no idea what those eat. Perhaps there are fish of fire down there for them. For all we know, there could be creatures of all kinds, a whole bestiary of flame living below the ground as we live above it, and the salamanders are simply the only ones that travel between the two. If the dragons know, they aren't telling anyone.

My own salamander spent most of the day out on top of the lantern it lives in, looking around with wide eyes at the town full of flames and the abundance of its relatives. I let it go and say hello to several of them. It was well-trained in Cormilack, though, and always came back when I called it.

Anyone who goes outdoors anywhere near the metalworking district or the river wears thick leather coats and wide-brimmed hats. Sparks and drops of molten iron spatter and drop there like rain, and not everyone is fireproof enough to just shrug them off. Fortunately, there are stores where you can rent the outfits. Like me, most visitors would rather not buy an entire set of fireproof clothing that they won't use anywhere else, but no one wants to come to Crucible and not see the River Flare.

The surface of the river used to steam and solidify when it rained.* Parts still do so, forming a dark crust on top like the ice on water; most of the river is covered, though, with a sort of metal awning that keeps it dry and therefore liquid. It's a beautiful structure, a roof held up by slender columns and rafters of metal, like a cross between a Caroque cathedral and an oven. The townspeople call it the Flue. It was built long ago by the legendary Lady Pyrafax, whom the legends say was part salamander (some say part dragon) and could sculpt molten metal with her bare hands, like clay. The Flue certainly looks like it was made that way; a skilled metalsmith could make work that graceful with a hammer, but it would take decades. Besides, the Flue has the look of something sculpted, not beaten. It's all fluid curves and graceful twists, no two parts quite the same, and there's not a seam in sight. Some say you can find the Lady Pyrafax's fingerprints in the metal. Fire-bats roost with salamanders in the upper reaches, swooping down to catch night insects before they fly into the bright river and incinerate themselves.

Most of Crucible's best metalworkers live near the river. It's the most convenient source of metal in the town. Many of them have balconies built over the banks, so they can lower containers made of stone** over the railings and pull up metal by the bucketful. Several of the smiths have pipes installed in their smithies that lead directly to the river. They have iron on tap with the turn of a handle. This only works in smithies by the river, though, as the iron will cool and solidify if it travels more than about six feet. That's a blocked pipe no plumber can fix.

I found out all of this without the company of Mahalia Peraximander. I had been traveling with her for the past few days - or, rather, I had been traveling with my scissors, which had been traveling with her. She didn't seem particularly interested in my company except as the owner of the scissors. She did talk to me occasionally - mostly describing her plans for her Fish, which continued to be completely incomprehensible to me, or complaining of the eccentricities of the family to which she was returning. "For they are a clan of the Stubborn and Unlistening," she said, "who would not see Sense if it was written on their very Eyelids." This is, apparently, the reason she spends so much time away from Crucible, despite her fierce devotion to the town. To hear her talk, no other place in the world is worth seeing, and no other family so impossible to tolerate.

When we reached the outskirts of Crucible, she stopped and turned to me. It had taken days, but her fur was short all over, if somewhat ragged. There were rust-red highlights in the black roots. It seems rather odd to complain about the heat and then return to a place like Crucible, but perhaps it's easier to endure when it's part of home.

"You have proved yourself Useful," she said, handing my scissors back. "You have my Thanks and Gratitude, and that of my Fish. May you be warmed by the Fire and never Burned. Now go away." With that, she turned and strode away through the streets.

I doubt I will see her again. If I ever find myself back here again, though, I intend to ask about her and her Fish. I am curious to hear if her plans for him succeed.

* Thanks to its constant shroud of soot and steam, Crucible is one of the only places in the world where the clouds clear when it rains. Sporetower is another.

** These are the crucibles with which the town shares its name. No one seems to be sure which is named after the other; both are containers that hold molten metal, so it could have gone either way.

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