“Eyes up, Willow,” said the gruff voice, “surely you, of all apprentices, know what it takes to run a comb, why we come here, what it teaches us to do?”
Young toes panicked, dug a bit further into the shells in inaudible reply, and in their involuntary thrust toward the next step of a well-practiced sunset routine, snapped a laggardly frame and glassy gaze into tight, controlled focus.
“Keep looking forward," Willow replied, with a sense of clarity as urgent as if awakened to crisis from a vivid dream,
Without looking back, the figure setting their aggressive foot speed along the remaining public shale oil shores of northeast Ironsfed grunted, a hint of approval entering his tone, “And why?”
Willow was too wise to the game to do anything but answer with a double entendre.
Tired from the run, feet aching from the continuous crunch of crushing crustaceans, a smirk nevertheless crossed lips as the punchline was huffed out between breaths and paces.
The greenish sparks firing off underneath the heels of the lead runner were certainly a result of coppers. Copper ions, that is, oxidized in the atmosphere with their predictable glow, upon quick release when crushed from within the calcified remnants of ocean life.
Watching the ins and outs of the Master’s path among the shells by keeping an eye on the trail of wintergreen glint was key to learning how to make an efficient run.
On top of that, there were the actual “coppers.”
A species of mollusk, known to the handsmiths as “copper,” while visible from extreme distance, was prone to sudden and deep drilling, while waiting for the electrolysis of the tide before resurfacing. Their inner workings somehow resulted in shells composed of nearly 95% pure copper, extracted from ions in salt water by a biological process yet to be understood.
Taking one by hand was a coming of age ritual among the traditional smithy clans of Ironsfed.
It was well known among them that “a copper seen was a copper lost,” because the valuable whelks reacted to the slightest variations in frequency with sheer burrowing panic..
Only by cracking along, eyes up, shoeless, at an absolutely normalized pace, each footstep practiced to match the sound and the shape of the shalesea tide, so as not to alarm the sensitive snails, could an apprentice hope to snatch one up and gain the raw materials needed to forge their medallion to advance to the level of journeycraft.
Apprentices’ feelings toward the sensitive snails were less than friendly, tired as they became of the seemingly interminable runs, and the seemingly impossible task of catching one. Nevertheless, they would all have agreed that the worst of all were the “Doos Dam Coppers.”
Willow hated their methods, even more than the snails’ subterranean self-defense, even more than the repetitious running.
The Doos family, barons of recent wealth thanks to savvy investment in the industrial boom, had built what they vainly titled the “Doos Dam,” a breakwater near the shalespoint. It allowed them to raise the water table in the bottom of their factories in the southwest corner of the city, to take advantage of the power of hydraulic flow through a number of machining processes.
However, the dam not only impeded the natural pace of the Irons River through the city, but also blacked it up with coal soot. Further, it managed to strain out all but the tiniest of the coppersnails, meaning that the handsmithy families’ beach running tradition wasn’t likely to survive another generation.
The uniformed officers entrusted with the dam’s safekeeping wore freshly-minted copper badges from the rich supply of conductors the Doos factories harvested from trapped snails in a twisted parody of natural equilibrium. Worse still was their habit of intentionally clopping their fat boots out onto the shoreline during regular running times, thinking it was a lark to disrupt the handcraft tradition. Some even went so far as to verbally antagonize shorerunners, in vain attempts to find an excuse to abuse their newfound authority.
So far, the handsmiths had survived, had managed to maintain tradition and dignity. Still, the situation wasn’t improving. The city was less and less friendly to the traditional crafts, all in the name of progress, and more importantly, the environment was suffering for it. The handsmiths were suffering for it. Something had to be done.
But what was Willow to do?
Surely, the figure whose green sparks marked the path of the run along the shaleshore knew more, was invested, could not allow freshly, falsely licensed police to befoul historical methods. Yet the master had done nothing… perhaps something as drastic, as revolutionary as donning the mask and damning the copper cost, taking on the mantle of the forge spirit Aar’ca Nal, the Bead of All Edges, the First Weep, the Bluestaple, was beyond consideration.
Or was it, Willow wondered, after a miniscule coppersnail burrowed out of sight, but not out of mind, frightened by the vibrations of one otherwise perfect thump of foot, distorted only by its placement upon a tiny, gunk-layered shard of factory waste, a single putrescent fragment of Ironsfed’s recent outpouring of dross that had begun to pollute the beach.