The Sheriff followed the track into town. Wherever he went, people moved away from him. If they were alone, they ran. If they were in groups, they dispersed. When the Sheriff looked inside the yurts, they were empty.
His law carried no power in Ponmom, but his voice did.
“WE SAW THE SMOKE,” he said to a beekeeper up on the hill. She was building a shelter against the wind. The force of the Sheriff’s voice knocked over a stack of hives. Several of the clay pipes broke. The beekeeper did not look at the Sheriff and she disappeared behind the ridge.
The Sheriff stood alone and twisted a lock of his long hair between his fingertip and thumb. The Order of Fury had tolerated this tiny Republic for a generation. It had spread in all directions out of Mlunplin, taking in refugees from the entire island, until the entire Realm of Ponmom was outside of the Order’s influence. The Republic wanted to be ignored by the Order, and the Order was content to ignore it. But then the Brothers had seen the chimneys, and then the Worm, and knew that it was past time to bring the Republic to heel.
The Sheriff returned to his battleforged camel and filled her feedbag. He fastened her ear protectors and adjusted his necklace. He turned his voice up as loud as he would dare it to go. He walked to the spot he perceived to be the nucleus of the village of Mlunpin. It was a circle of chopped stumps attached around an iron stove. He spoke.
“I HOLD A WARRANT FROM THE ORDER. I WILL INSPECT THE IRON WORM.”
There were hundreds of Free Republics that clung like lichen to the edges of the world. They filled up the cracks, floated off shore or burrowed underground. They were made of many shapes and ideas but all had this in common: they stood where the Orders did not. The Free Republic of Ponmon was one of the more strident of the type.
When the currents of dust thrown up by the Sheriff’s voice had settled, Ouma Tau appeared. She had been tanning a yak hide so was covered in grime. The Sheriff had never seen a face so wrinkled.
“In a man’s greeting lies his character,” said Ouma. “You are a shameless pig, a nuisance, and you have upset the bees.”
The Sheriff touched his necklace. He spread his voice only a little further than his throat could project. “I would say the same about the greeting given to me by the people of Sonton. I saw no Banner to welcome me to your House.”
“There is no Banner here. There is no House, just people.” said Ouma.
“Those people have not answered my salutation, they have turned away from me,” said the Sheriff. The old woman laughed as if she had heard something obvious.
“The people can not see a guest that is carrying Calamities!” she said, pointing a mocking finger at the Sheriff. “The chain around your throat, your armour, your bludgeon. Even your camel, I think!” she waved in the direction of the beast, who was still chewing her way through her feedbag. “Calamities, we can do without. There are calamities everywhere in the world, but not here. We have no Order so we have no Calamities. This keeps fortune on our side. Surrender yours, or leave.”
The Sheriff recognised the tone of authority.
“You are the leader here?” he asked, his voice lowered a notch in respect.
“I tan the hides, I split the hives, I spoil the children,” Ouma said, gazing abstractedly at the hills.The Sheriff spat. His patience was exhausted.
“But you lie,” he said, marching past the old woman. “You have the Worm.” She thought about this for a moment.“The Worm is not a Calamity,” she called, and walked after him. He was surprised at how quickly she matched his pace. He was heading downhill towards the valley.“You don’t have the expertise to identify one. They can take many guises,” he snarled.
“The Worm is not one,” she repeated. Their walk had gathered some attention. The Sheriff saw men appear at the tops of the cliffs. He measured the distances, turned up his voice, and spoke three words at each of them. The words ballooned inside their bodies. They doubled over with pain and fell, gasping, to their knees.
“You are so frightened by my grandchildren that you’ve hurt them,” chuckled Ouma. “How great and powerful your magic is!” The Sheriff turned to her and spoke another word:“ENOUGH.”Ouma crumbled like a log burned through. She coughed and coughed. The Sheriff tried to explain himself.
“I have seen the smoke of the Worm, I have heard its cries. You people claim to forsake the magic but every time you crawl back to it like a dog at the back door.” Ouma said nothing, the wind was gone from her. She shook her head, and even this somehow had a hectoring tone to the Sheriff.“Since you are now making use of magic, your land must respect the authority of the Order. Without our guidance, you will misuse it. People will be hurt, and killed. We have seen it happen again and again." He gathered himself. “Cover your ears, grandmother,” he said to her and then, to everyone: “THIS HOUSE IS UNDER THE PROTECTION OF THE ORDER OF FURY. WE WILL SEND A BROTHER WITH A BANNER, AND WE WILL BUILD AN ABBEY FOR HIM. YOU WILL FEED HIM AND RESPECT HIS WISHES, FOR THEY ARE THE WISHES OF THE ORDER. ANY ACT AGAINST YOUR BROTHER WILL BE AN ACT AGAINST THE ORDER.”
The Sheriff’s hair settled again around his shoulders. His pulse was racing from the exertion. He had no doubt that the people of Sonton had heard his voice. Since they had heard it, they were now subject to the law. He helped Ouma Tau to her feet.
“It will be for the best,” he said, with his plain voice. “Our Brother and our Banner will stand guard against others who would use the Relics to conquer you. You won’t have to be afraid of outsiders.”
“You should be afraid of us,” said Ouma, her face a deep scowl. The Sheriff looked at the old woman, barely standing. He looked at her grandchildren that had tried to attack him, who were staggering off to hide again. He looked around at the frightened faces peering out from behind trees and yurts. He allowed the old woman her pride. He held her small brown hand in his.
“Please show me the Worm,” he asked.
She led him towards the coast, into the valley. This is where he had seen the smoke rise. The mage from his office had heard the breathing come from within the mountain. He wondered how the people had caught the Worm and how they controlled it. In the valley was a well-worn path leading towards the entrance of a coal mine cut into the cliff face. The mines in Sonton provided coal for much of the Realm. The Republics were especially reliant on it as a source of heat and fuel. They walked on the path, overshadowed by the cliffs. The Sheriff could smell the sea air.
“We’ve already had one,” muttered Ouma Tau.
“What was that, grandmother?” asked the Sheriff. She had been quiet and pliant now that she knew what his voice could do. He had been easy on her - sometimes he had been forced to use it lethally. He could rupture lungs and make brains into jelly.
“When I was a girl, we had a Brother. He lived just there, in a fine abbey. The tallest building for miles.” ” she pointed at an indistinguishable scrap of land. “When we decided we wanted no part in the Order, he went over the cliff, just there.” It was clear enough what she was pointing at then. The Sheriff gave a very short chuckle. There was much to doubt about the story, and he admired the old woman for her spirit. He knew what the repercussions would be for a House that killed its attendant Brother. Even one Advocate of the Order could lay this Realm to waste. The leaders would be culled with the cattle. The crops and the dwellings burned. He estimated that he could do all of that here, single-handedly, in an afternoon. He whistled as the entrance to the mine loomed closer. He could hear something coming from within.
“That is the breathing of the Worm?” the Sheriff asked. Ouma Tau nodded. He activated his breastplate, which shone a bright beam ahead of him. He entered the mine and Ouma Tau lagged behind. The breathing was short and deep. The Sheriff had not heard anything quite like it. He felt that his suspicions about the Worm were true - it was a massive beast. Had it been made artificially large by a Relic, or was it a demon of an unknown nature. Had the people here captured it somehow, or were they in its thrall? The Sheriff’s spirit sang. He looked back at the entrance to the mine, where the silhouettes of frightened villagers swam. He pressed on, unafraid. His voice could tame any monster. The larger the foe, the more pressure he could exert on its innards. He adjusted his necklace to a suitable power for a stunning blow. The breathing was deafening.
The beam from his chestplate caught a moment of movement. A blurred set of pikes, chopping as if held by runners, attached to a whirling mass. The Sheriff had all of half a second to inspect the Worm before it hit him. His armour took the brunt of the impact but its beam was extinguished. The Sheriff was carried backwards by the blow, and the Worm ran along with him. He found that he was being held by the sleeve of his coat, then realised that he was in fact being dragged alongside the Worm as it galloped towards the mine’s entrance. The incessant panting of its lungs filled his head. Daylight was soon upon him, and he calculated the unearthly speed at which the Worm was lunging out of its lair. Then the Worm took hold of his hair, pulling it in a grasp as leaden as a millstone. The Sheriff found his footing along the floor of the mine, yanked his sleeve free and tugged back on his hair. He narrowly escaped a scalping. The Worm ran ahead of him with his hair still in its claws. He ran behind it now, slowing his momentum to keep from falling. The Worm burst into daylight and the Sheriff sprinted to catch it.
He had the span of a few footsteps to try and resolve the shape of the Iron Worm. It was indeed made of iron, but his idea of it being a beast fell short. It had no head to speak of, and where he had expected to see the clattering legs of a centipede there were small wheels. It was segmented, but in the same way a series of wagons were hitched together. As he saw it speed into the distance he saw that the Iron Worm was trailing behind it many containers of coal. He stood at the opening of the mine and adjusted his necklace. His confusion hardened to anger and he would slay this beast that was not a beast with one almighty shout.
Then two men in veils appeared at his left side and threw a heavy clay pipe at him. It glanced off his side and broke on the ground. The two men were already in a run. Another pair, carrying another pipe, appeared at his right side. He inhaled, ready to strike them both dead for this childishness.
The clay pipes were the housings of a beehive. The pipe that had broken at the Sheriff’s feet had released thousands of angry bees into the air. So when the Sheriff inhaled, a bee was sucked into the upper part of his trachea. The bee panicked and stung the inside of his throat. The Sheriff coughed, which sent a thunderclap into the cliffside and crushed the bee. He choked on the bee’s carcass as her sisters fell upon him with vengeance.
One of the veiled men who had thrown the pipe moved through the cloud of bees and removed the Sheriff’s necklace. The Sheriff was quite helpless and entering anaphylaxis. He was sure to hurt someone while coughing and spluttering with such a powerful voice. The necklace was taken to Ouma Tau, who was standing a safe distance away. When the Sheriff was dead and the bees had settled down they collected his body, along with his breastplate. Ouma Tau led them to the top of the cliff and they threw the entire collection of things into the sea.
The Sheriff’s camel, they let go. She was relieved of her saddlebags and harness and allowed to wander wherever she wished.
The Iron Worm went on its way out of Mlunplin. It pulled its load of coal to Mlonpon, then on to Sonton. With each delivery, the Realm became a little less dependent on the Order for heat and light and food. The tracks that the Worm dug into the ground were the arteries that carried the life blood of the Free Republic.