As Miter finished his own trading, he saw Gove was still talking to Empul; they did not look like they had reached any sort of agreement. As he came closer, he could hear Gove quizzing the blacksmith.
“So after the equinox then? How long after?”
Empul looked extremely fed up. “I don’t know; three weeks, a month or two; I’m not guardsen and I am not the keeper of the north circuit’s route.” They shifted their crossed arms and leaned back against a thick post, staring at Gove from beneath heavy eyelids. As Miter caught their eye, they raised an eyebrow.
“Miter — you look like you need me for something.”
Gove whipped around, looking slightly rueful. Miter was relieved he wasn’t the only person finding her behaviour frustrating, but he didn’t want her to alienate the whole town, either.
“Gove, have you gotten that ax sorted out?”
Gove and Empul quickly glanced at one another, and then Gove turned half away from Miter with open embarrassment on her face.
“Apparently Empul is not a fan of smoked meat either.” She shrugged. “So I won’t be trading them for an ax.”
Miter scanned Empul’s unrolled leather wraps, where four nice hand axes lay lined up between smaller knives and longer fire tongs.
“You know, Empul; this summer’s cheeses are almost ready.”
“You don’t say. You salt them properly this time?”
Gove squinted at Miter. “What are you —”
“Half a wheel for an ax?”
Empul snorted. “Full wheel and you know it. You’re not on credit anymore, Miter; I’ve melted down all your iron already.”
Gove sputtered, but he handed her a basket and stepped between her and the blacksmith.
“Half a wheel and enough felt to line your shoes; next market.”
“Winter undercoat wool.”
And Empul shut their eyes and nodded solemnly. “Next market, then. I’ll have a better ax than these little ones, just for you.”
Gove glared at them both. “I can’t believe this.”
Miter led her away from Empul before she could resume her interrogation. Gove waited till they were clear of the main crowd, and then turned on him.
“I don’t need your charity.” Her eyes were embers; was she embarrassed?
“It won’t be charity if you trade me fence building for that ax.”
“You said my fences were terrible.”
“The ax might improve them.”
She didn’t laugh; Miter tilted his head in confusion.
“You either accept this ax from me or you rely on me to chop firewood all winter. I’m thinking of myself, I promise.”
This did not have the intended effect. Somehow, Gove looked more miserable. “I’m fine on my own, Miter.” She turned and stared into the fog; it was thick enough now the far riverbank was hidden. “I don’t need this kind of looking after.”
The wind stirred up tendrils of mist into strange shapes, and Miter tried to figure out where he’d gone wrong.
“You still seem worried, though?” Gove pointedly huffed in response. “I’m just trying to be a good neighbour.” He had an idea. “Maybe these will help.”
As he rustled around in his back, trying to find them, Gove succumbed to curiosity and turned back with a sigh. Her frown remained, but she waited as he unwrapped the wards and tilted them to show her. “Rusk makes these, to ward off the uncanny and the cruel.”
“The uncanny?” She caught his eye and glared. “You want me to worry about your monster with you?”
“They’re good for more than just —”
“I have real things to worry about! Guards!” And she pushed his hand away, harder perhaps than she meant to — because the wards tumbled from their stack, and three of the four slipped from his grip.
The three wards hit the deck boards and shattered; each little amber window rattled down between boards to the river below.
Miter snatched the remaining ward away from her, a cold feeling seeping into him from his feet. Suddenly the mist had a chill to it; and his scarred hand ached with a feeling of frostbite and crushing teeth.
Gove was wide—eyed at her own mistake and didn’t seem to notice.
“Shit, shit, Miter, I didn’t mean to do that —” She frantically picked up the larger shards of terracotta, and desperately tried to fit a few back together. “I don’t know how these work; I just — can I fix it?”
He stared at her. “They’re wards. You only use them till they break.”
She looked so horrified, hands full of broken clay, that he felt the chill recede a little. This was all a misunderstanding; an accident. She was new here.
“Maybe it was meant to be this way.” Miter smiled a little, trying to sound lighthearted. “Wards work by breaking.”
That seemed to lighten the mood a touch. “Does that mean you’re triple warded now?”
That wasn’t exactly how these wards worked, but he didn’t think she needed to know right now. “I’ve never felt safer.”
He packed the remaining ward back in his pack, and Gove waited politely.
By silent agreement, they turned to leave the market together. Gove was clearly still thinking about the wards.
“Are they a northern thing?”
“Yes. The first time I was given one was up on the glacier.”
Gove looked impressed. “What brought you up there?”
Miter hesitated. But no, not today.
“I traveled a fair bit. Before the muskoxen.”
Gove stepped ahead, picking a path through the crowd towards the bridges that led to shore. “That sounds wonderful; I’ve always wanted to see the glacier.”
“It’s a strange place.” He shuddered. “Leaves a mark on you.”
“I’ve always wanted to see the sun stay up all night.” Gove paused to let a cart roll by them, and then, as she turned back onto the thoroughfare, Miter heard a familiar noise. Iron plates, rattling together; wooden cartwheels and soft leather boots.
Ahead of him, Gove froze.
Out of the fog, first one, then two, then a whole troop of guardsen walked onto the bridge, heading straight into town.