You were used to hearing their names. Like distant thunder. Like legends of old, like Dragons and heroes of a bygone era. [Kings] and [Queens], monarchs—famous adventurers, they were all the same. Names you heard, but never expected to meet. Giants you painted in your imagination, half-real figures who shook the world, but you were always so far away you only felt a rumble in the ground. Until the day you met one and realized everything was true.
And there he was. Orthenon, the King’s Steward. A tall, gaunt man with a long mustache and dark, somber clothing. He could have been an ordinary servant but for the gold that lined his clothing and the sword at his waist. And even then, you might have assumed he was a [Butler] of some kind, but his eyes betrayed him. They pieced straight through you with a glance; as imperious as any ruler born.
In that, he was every bit of the legend. As for the rest? He was not accompanied by an army of servants. His clothing was rather plain, for all it looked well on him. He stood by himself, straight and balanced. Not quite glaring at Trey and Gazi.
They’d fallen from a tower. Or rather, it sounded like Trey had been pushed. But there she stood as well. The half-Gazer, her skin orange-brown, her hair tied into dreadlocks and braided back. Three of her eyes looked towards Nawal and the rest of the frozen Tannousin clan, the fourth was staring at Trey, who was brushing himself, still shaking from his fall.
Two of the King of Destruction’s vassals, here, in the flesh! You couldn’t have asked for a grander reception, however incidental. Nawal couldn’t take her eyes off Gazi’s armor or Orthenon’s single-edged sword. But mindful of what had to be done, another of the caravan stepped forwards and bowed deeply.
“Lord Orthenon of Reim! I am your humble servant, Silmak of Clan Tannousin. With me travel thirty two of my kin. Among them I name Hesseif, who is chiefly tasked with defense of the caravan. Bezhavil, my aunt second-removed who is tasked with overseeing the womenfolk and managing the caravan itself, and Nawalishifra, who will serve as, ah, the [Blacksmith] in forging the Naq-Alrama steel. We have come far, bearing it, and are prepared to honor the oath made by Nawalishifra to the King of Destruction, long may he live!”
Silmak, the caravan’s leader, at least in name, swept a low bow towards the still Orthenon and the rest of Clan Tannousin, breaking from their stasis, immediately knelt on the ground. The men who had been guarding the huge, covered wagon in which sat the precious Naq-Alrama metal, the treasure of their clan, were the only ones who stood standing. They and the three Silmak had mentioned.
Hesseif, Bezha, and Nawal all approached and bowed deeply with Silmak. Nawal wondered if they should have knelt, but the stern face watching them gave no sign of displeasure. Then again, that might be as easily expressed by all of their heads suddenly rolling on the ground. She bowed her head, keeping her veil in place with one hand. And she kept it bowed, until she heard a voice.
“I am Orthenon, the King of Destruction’s [Steward]. In the name of his Majesty Flos Reimarch, I greet you, Silmak, and your clan.”
An audible sigh of relief rippled through the kneeling Humans. They raised their heads, and Nawal saw Orthenon give Silmak a slight bow. He was in his twenties—Silmak, that was—and it was a mark of his experience that he didn’t waver as he returned the bow a second time, deeper. There was a reason why the elders and headman had chosen Silmak to lead the caravan and do the speaking, and not just because he was a man.
Orthenon went on, his voice crisp, still glancing at Trey, who was edging backwards, face flushed. Nawal remembered Trey. Oh, how could she forget? The strange foreign boy who knew nothing of blades? And whom she had boasted to right before it turned out he and Gazi Pathseeker were both the King of Destruction’s servants in disguise? But Orthenon was speaking to Silmak, and Nawal focused on him lest she give offence.
“By the sands, I offer you sanctuary and friendship, Silmak, and to that of your clan gathered here. Let no one offer you violence under his roof, and know that should you ask it, both water and wine will flow so long as either remains in these halls. You are honored guests, so enter and find rest until the oases of Chandrar bleed dry.”
It was a good welcome, short, but powerful. The Tannousin clan straightened their backs. Honored guests? And the King of Destruction’s Steward had come to greet them? It was something you could brag till the end of your days. And then they remembered why they were accorded such honors, and all eyes turned to Nawalishifra.
[Blacksmith]. The one in charge of working the expensive, practically unique Naq-Alrama metal that their clan alone knew how to manufacture. By rights, she should have led the caravan and done the speaking. But there was a problem. Nawal was female. And as fast as Silmak had tried to slip that into their greeting, there was no way Orthenon had missed that. His piercing gaze met Nawal’s and she immediately looked down, shuddering in apprehension.
“Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin. I greet you. His Majesty has accepted your pledge to forge for him a blade without equal. So long as you pursue that vow, let the palace and indeed, the city of Reim be open to you and whatever you need be made available.”
Another powerful greeting. But Nawal wished it were not so pointed.
“Lead me to your master, foreign warrior! Pay my cost and I will forge your master a blade sharper and finer than any he has laid eyes on in his life! My oath on it! I swear it on the body of the man-who-was-my-brother, cursed be his name!”
That was the oath Nawal had sworn near three weeks ago. She had had cause to regret it since. She had sworn—on the blood of her brother, whom she’d killed when he’d tried to sell her as a slave—to forge Trey’s master a blade that he had never seen before if he would pay her cost. And the King of Destruction had taken that offer. He had sent a bag of holding full of gold by Courier to her tribe and requested her presence in his capital city. Nawal’s clan had debated the offer for three full days before it was decided that she had to come, woman or not.
But she was still female. And young. And Orthenon had to know how tricky Naq-Alrama steel was. The King’s Stewards stared at Nawal, but made no comment as to her gender or inexperience. Instead, Orthenon only nodded.
“The affairs of Reim keep me busy; even to this day I prepare to ride north. However, four servants shall show you to your quarters and answer any needs you have.”
He gestured, and four servants, two men, and two women, seemed to appear out of the doors behind him. It was well done, but again, Nawal had half-expected the number to be two hundred.
“We thank you, Lord Orthenon. It is truly generous.”
Silmak again answered for the clan. Orthenon inclined his head. Again his eyes swept left. Towards Trey, who was now trying to sneak past the waiting servants.
The young man froze. He looked back, with a pained expression that betrayed all too much. There was one who understood nothing of diplomacy or intrigue! Nawal studied Trey a second time.
Clearly a foreigner. He had pale skin, and he looked odd in his clothes, for all he dressed like a city man. Yes, it was that awkwardness that marked him as not from Chandrar, from his dark blonde hair to the way he gave Orthenon a wide-eyed look. And the way he spoke!
“Er, yes, Orthenon? I was just uh, being shown how to fall by Gazi.”
He looked around, as did Nawal, but Gazi Pathseeker had vanished. Nawal’s heart jumped although she should have expected nothing less. Orthenon looked disapproving, but he nodded succinctly. Then he turned back to Clan Tannousin and gestured at Trey.
“I understand your clan has met Trey Atwood, Honored Silmak. I would ask that you excuse any errors he makes. Trey Atwood is a companion of the King of Destruction, someone chosen to follow him. Bear that in mind, all of you.”
Trey turned red, but the Tannousin clan members gave him a look as if he’d sprouted another head. Nawal’s heart skipped a beat. One of the King of Destruction’s personal attendants? Not just a servant? Who was he? Then again, Gazi the Omniscient had spoken of training him…
Orthenon spoke again, driving all eyes back towards him.
“As for your task—I understand the journey was long. To have made it this far so quickly from Clan Tannousin’s traditional homes must have taken weeks of marching without rest. So, rest, and when you are able, I, or the King of Destruction shall discuss the nature of the blade you will forge.”
“It is understood. We shall await his summons with the greatest anticipation.”
Silmak’s voice was slightly hoarse with nerves. Orthenon nodded. Without another word, he turned and strode back into the palace. One of the servants stepped forwards, an older woman.
“Will you follow me, Clan Tannousin? Your rooms await. And if you would care to retreat for lunch, it is being served. Follow me.”
She turned and the clan awkwardly followed her as more servants came out, to take the horses and belongings. There was a moment of hesitation when it came to the wagon, because the Tannousin men guarding it would let no one handle the contents or approach the wagon, not even the King of Destruction’s servants. But that was dealt with by letting them carry their burden inside, and Nawal was following Silmak anyways.
The thirty two men and women milled about, beginning to follow the lead servant. On the way, they passed by Trey, who was awkwardly standing to one side, looking around as if still searching for Gazi. He caught Nawal’s eye as she passed him by and raised a hand, grinning sheepishly.
“Hi. I uh—I’ll see you around, Nawal.”
She stared at him. Trey’s smile slipped, but Nawal nodded.
“We have met again, Trey Atwood. I will see you, if it is permitted.”
She bowed slightly, her hand resting on the little dagger at her side. Trey blinked at her, at it, nodded, and walked backwards before turning. Nawal watched him go, and the burning question in her breast finally made its way out.
Was that it? Was this all?
Part of her thought this was more than enough. She had seen two legends, and heard both talk! The palace of the King of Destruction opened for her, and Nawal followed the four ordinary servants into the castle. But she couldn’t help but feel it should have been grander. Everything, that was.
Across the world, Erin Solstice cut herself with a knife as she sliced some pork for a premade meal in her kitchen. Or rather, she thought she’d sliced herself. But when she checked her hand and the stinging line of pain, she found she’d barely cut into her skin.
“Whew. That’s a relief. No missing fingers? Check, check. I could have gotten myself badly! Then again—”
Erin frowned as she felt the edge of her knife gingerly with one finger. It was certainly sharp, but she’d had to work it through the meat, which had led to it cutting her to begin with. True, it was also her fault for getting her fingers in the way, but recent events had led Erin to focus on the quality of her knives. Or rather, their sharpness.
“You’re not that sharp, are you? I thought you were hot stuff, but I guess that was back when I first sliced my hand open by accident. Now look at you.”
Erin placed her knife on the table counter and stared at it. The plain steel stared back. Erin tried to think of how many things she’d cut in the time since.
“Too many to count! And you were always there with me, buddy. Well, I’m afraid to say that you’ve lost your edge. Sad. What’ll I do?”
The knife didn’t respond. Erin bent until it was at eye level.
“Don’t worry. I know a guy. Well, a Dullahan. But why should I settle for just him? Maybe the problem’s not just the knife being sharp. Maybe you’re just not up to scratch!”
She poked the knife.
“Ow. Okay, you’re still sort of sharp. But…I mean, I never went to Liscor’s [Blacksmiths]. But Pallass has really good [Blacksmiths], right? Hold on, I’m going to ask. Hey, Selys!”
Erin poked her head into the common room. There was a shout.
“Does Liscor have [Blacksmiths]? And are they any good compared to Pallass?”
“Liscor has [Blacksmiths]! Why wouldn’t we? But Pallass is known for having good [Blacksmiths]!”
“Got it, thanks!”
Erin reappeared in the kitchen, although her conversation would have been perfectly audible if there was anyone to hear. Which there wasn’t; there was only a knife on the counter and some sliced pork. Erin shook her head sadly as she picked up said knife.
“Well, buddy. It might be curtains for you. I’m gonna check this out. Let me just slice the rest of this pork…”
She sliced the pork, shoved it to one side for Lyonette to use in the stir fry she’d wanted to try out with her [Flawless Attempt] Skill, and wandered into the common room.
“Hey, Ishkr! Tell Lyonette I’m going to Pallass! See you all later! Still on holiday!”
Erin waved at the room. No one waved back. Selys was too busy playing with Mrsha and her ball, and the other adventurers were busy reading one of Calruz’ maps and arguing. It might turn into a fistfight, or it might not. Erin walked over to the magic door and changed it to Pallass.
“Nobody cares about me anymore.”
She grumbled as she stepped through the door. Instantly, there was sunlight and noise. It was midday in Pallass, or just about. Bright, sunny—Erin looked around and noticed a Drake glaring at her.
“Oh hey! It’s you again! Okay, I know I’m not on the list, but—hey, don’t you point that spear at me!”
That was how she began her day. This tale had no bearing on Nawal’s introduction to Reim, or Trey’s, but it was still relevant for other reasons. After all, Erin had little notion of or interest in the King of Destruction. But this wasn’t a tale about him today.
“…And here is the interior well. You may draw from it freely at need. Please seek out one of the servants if you have any other needs.”
The old woman finished her tour and Bezha nodded. Both she and Nawal stared at the indoor well—who would have thought of such a thing?—and tried to guess at how much water it could supply. A lot, surely, if it was free for anyone to use. Reim must have been one of the natural oases—like many of the kingdoms or cities, it had grown on top of the only available water supply. Of course, there were some parts of Chandrar that even had streams and rivers, but Nawal had never seen them. She was born of the Tannousin tribe, and they wandered the edge of the great desert, plying their trade while mining the scattered deposits of ore only their tribe remembered existed.
It was a harsh life, but if they abandoned their lands, someone else would swoop in to control the valuable resources of metal. After all, it was said that in Chandrar, water was worth the same as blood. By the same token, steel and wood were worth their weight in gold if shaped correctly.
The King of Destruction lacked for neither, or so Nawal had assumed. The brief tour had taken her to the banquet halls, past training grounds filled with soldiers, through bustling corridors filled with servants, and finally here, to a wing of the palace devoted to guests. And now she and Bezha returned to the quarters gifted to the Tannousin clan.
The quarters were…nice. Yes, nice was the word. The palace of Reim had enough unused wings and rooms to house a caravan twenty times the size of Clan Tannousin without issue, and so the clan found themselves treated to wide, spacious rooms freed of dust and beds of soft cotton. Nawal had her private room, as did Silmak, Hesseif, and Bezha, as befit their status. Meanwhile, the rest of the clan was given two large bunk rooms, one for the women, and one for the men.
Spacious. You couldn’t ask for better treatment, really. Had they been in any other castle or palace, Nawal was certain they’d be sharing rooms, and that their status, even as a blacksmithing clan, wouldn’t earn them private rooms to themselves. But here she had her own private bed, freshly made. ‘Nice’ might be too weak a word. This was excellent treatment for a nomadic tribe who had done nothing yet to earn it.
And yet—cotton sheets. Nawal had to poke them a few times to be sure. The soft cloth was luxurious, to be certain, but they weren’t exactly silk. Perhaps it was a reminder of their status? But the drapes and other decorations in the palace had been made of cloth too, not silks or more expensive fabrics. And the walls had been decorated with some paintings, but many spots were conspicuously bare. Had the palace been looted?
Bezha wondered the same thing as both Hesseif and Silmak met with them. Obviously it was inappropriate for them to be together in a closed room, two men who weren’t Nawal’s immediate family in the same room, but Bezha was Hesseif’s aunt and they were all of the same tribe, so they left the door partly open. This wasn’t the time for strictest adherence to custom either.
“It’s fine treatment, Nawali. Don’t prod so. Were this any other castle, you would be overjoyed for a single room for us to share! And the quarters are filled with beds so that the men and women can stretch out and not roll into each other as they sleep! This is beyond gracious!”
The older woman pointed that out to Nawal. The [Blacksmith] scowled, flexing her callused hands restlessly.
“But this is the King of Destruction’s abode, is it not? Surely there are some rooms meant for the most privileged of guests, and we are not they! Our beds are simple, but is this a courtesy of goodwill or the basest of rooms spared because we are considered savages?”
Silmak shook his head.
“Hardly savages. You heard the way the King’s Steward welcomed us. Perhaps there aren’t any rooms filled with silk beds and rugs that span wall to wall?”
“And pretty maidens to wait on us hand and foot.”
Hesseif sighed. Nawal glared at him and the big caravan guard hunched his shoulders. Technically he and Silmak were in charge, but Hesseif was actually rather timid outside of battle. And Silmak? He only sighed when Nawal shifted her glare to him.
“It may be we are treated as those of lesser station, Nawal. What of it? Would you argue if you heard a [Lord] resided in the most luxurious of rooms, or a [First Warrior] of a tribe? No, I would not. And yes, it is odd that our rooms are not grand as the legends say, but perhaps silk bed sheets are too much to ask of the King of Destruction’s castle?”
He raised his eyebrows meaningfully and Nawal flushed. It was true; expecting that would be insane anywhere but the King of Destruction’s castle. Bezha nodded, running her tattooed hands up her covered arms.
“Perhaps such riches were sold off, too. Twenty years would lay any kingdom low. Perhaps they sold all of what was here to survive. It would not do to bring it up lest we cause offence. We should not cause any offence.”
She looked at Nawal when he said that. The young woman blushed and tugged her veil more securely around her face furiously. She gripped the dagger at her side.
“I will mind my tongue. But I represent Clan Tannousin, and we are due respect!”
“And the King of Destruction is due deference and fear and awe! And you are a woman!”
Bezha smacked Nawal on the back of her neck. Nawal’s grip tightened on her dagger, but she didn’t unsheathe it. Silmak looked between the two, not wanting to intrude on the argument and go the way of Nawal’s brother.
“Patience, Nawal, Bezha. We know not if offence has been given or taken. It is simply good now that we were issued a welcome and both bed and sustenance, is it not? We should eat first, and then inquire. But tell me—that foreign boy whom the King’s Steward spoke of. Trey Atwood. He was the one who you met, wasn’t he, Nawal?”
The young woman nodded. So did Hesseif.
“He was the same, Silmak. I would recognize him a thousand times over, sands strike my eyes if I err. Nawal must be careful around him, lest she give offence, even to someone not of Chandrar.”
A second poke at Nawal. The [Blacksmith] girl knew they were right—she’d gotten into trouble countless times and been taken to task by everyone from her deceased father, may he rest in the sands, to Bezha. But she still tossed her head defiantly.
“I did not know he was so important. But he is still a servant, is he not? Should I not speak to him like some dumb mule? I am the one chosen to forge the Naq-Alrama blades. To speak with a foreigner like Trey Atwood is not as disgraceful, surely.”
“You swore to make a blade that surpasses any the King of Destruction has ever seen. Let us hope he has never laid eyes on a Naq-Alrama blade. Or that he does not hold you to the strictest words of your promise.”
Silmak’s eyes were guarded. Nawal’s bluster faded. She looked around the room. Hesseif, Bezha, both stared at Nawal with the question in their eyes. Could she do it alone? Nawal had been trained by her father, yes, and aided him when he was too weak to do the forging, but always under his supervision.
This year was the first since his passing, and this would be the first blade of Naq-Alrama steel she forged unaided. It was a challenge even for a fully experienced Tannousin [Blacksmith] and Nawal was yet young and low-level for the work, even if she was the best in her clan by far.
Part of Nawal faltered. But then she straightened her back defiantly.
“I will forge him blades of our steel, that can cut through any spell! If he asks for more, I will rise to his challenge! What else can be done? Until an apprentice rises in level and skill, I am the only [Blacksmith] our tribe possesses. If I cannot forge the Naq-Alrama steel perfectly, our people will scatter to dust.”
Nawal pounded her breast passionately.
“I may curse the fact ten thousand times waking that I was born a woman and not a man, and that no other apprentice lived long enough or had the skill to follow in my deceased father’s footsteps, may he rest in the sands, but I will not disgrace our tribe! If I do, may my hammer twist in my hands and my blood water the sands!”
The three Tannousin clan leaders nodded solemnly. What choice did they have indeed? The King of Destruction had offered them gold where no one else would take their steel, let alone Nawal’s craft. If they had to live in the stables with the animals, they would humble themselves to keep their clan alive.
Bezha sighed as she sat in a chair made of soft, polished wood and backed by fabric.
“Then remember that, Nawali. Do not disgrace us, and we will support you. I will see to the caravan as I always have and ensure they do not cause offence—even find work for them if work is to be had in Reim.”
“I will guard the metal. It is being kept in a room and we will stand watch day and night, and let no one not of our blood enter, or any ray of sunlight in.”
Hesseif bowed his broad, shaved head. Silmak nodded. His eyes sparkled, and his hands, tattooed like Bezha’s, sparkled and lit up as he looked at Nawal.
“And I will prepare your forge, Nawalishifra. When the time is needed, we will do all in our power to give you no reason for failure. The rest lies on you.”
Nawal nodded, pride filling her along with fear. Her clan was with her. What else could she ask for? She bowed her head low, once, and the others did likewise. Then she went to find Trey to ask him to show her around the castle. He seemed the most approachable, the least guarded and easiest not to offend with careless talk.
Most importantly, he was a foreigner and she could speak freely to him and ask how good the King of Destruction’s [Blacksmiths] were. And at least in this, Nawal hoped the legends of the King of Destruction were exaggerated. Because she wanted to see the competition she would be facing.
No one could remember specific legends of the King of Destruction’s [Blacksmiths], although all agreed they must have been mighty workers of metal and magical ore, so Nawal had hopes the greatest of the masters had died out or gone elsewhere in his slumber. At the very least, she was relieved none of the legends mentioned Dwarves serving the King of Destruction. They would be really hard to outdo.
Erin Solstice stomped down the streets of Pallass towards one of the elevators, grumbling to herself. This was actually a good sign, despite the people who gave her weird looks.
“Stupid uptight Drake guards. It’s my door! Security risk, am I? Your face is a security risk! That’s what I should have said. Boom! Nice one, Erin. High-five, self-five!”
Erin slapped her hands together over her head and laughed. She felt better today. More like normal Erin after—gosh, how long had it been? Ages. But somehow she was in a good mood. Even if she thought about Goblins, she didn’t want to cry—at least not now.
“Ninth floor, please! That’s the blacksmithing section, right?”
Erin asked the elevator attendant. The female Drake, who Erin could have sworn was the same one as yesterday, sighed and nodded.
“That’s correct Miss. Please stand clear of the ledge.”
Erin walked further into the elevator and watched the Drake teen pull a lever. The elevator started to go up very quickly.
“You know, you should really have buttons instead of that lever! So the elevator stops on whatever floor you press a button for! It’d be a lot safer I bet!”
The Drake frowned as Erin gestured to an imaginary set of buttons.
“What would my job be, then?”
The young woman wavered and gave the Drake attendant a blank look.
“Uh…pressing the buttons, I guess?”
The Drake thought about that. She pulled a second lever and the elevator slowed.
“That would be nice. Hm. Ninth floor, Miss.”
Erin smiled at her, walked onto the ninth floor, and immediately heard a different noise take over. Clanging, sharp and brisk, filling the air, and behind it, a dull mix of voices, the sound of metal rasping on metal. Shouts as someone carrying white-hot metal navigated around the edge of a blacksmithing shop—the sounds of serious work.
There was something appealing about it; Erin had never seen anything like it in her world. Industrial factories were precise, mechanical without fault unless something went wrong. But this? This was organized chaos.
“Time to find me a [Blacksmith] and see about that knife. I wonder if I can get an extra-sturdy one if I have to slice up Ashfire Bees or stab monsters with it too?”
Erin rubbed her hands as she walked forwards. Last time she’d admired how many forges there were, but she hadn’t really appreciated the layout. Pallass had effectively created half a floor dedicated only to the blacksmiths, and given them rows of forges to work out of. Each one was more or less identical, such that you could move into one for the day, set up, and move out, or rent a space indefinitely.
It was the first step towards industrialization; Erin saw there was a dedicated cargo elevator meant to ferry supplies to the smiths, and more than one Street Runner was loitering about, perhaps waiting to deliver a finished product or take a request. Erin passed by working Drake and Dullahans, until she came to three forges near the middle and spotted some familiar faces.
“There’s Maughin! And uh…Pelt!”
Erin spotted the two [Blacksmiths] she’d been introduced to yesterday. Maughin, the giant among Dullahans, and Pelt, the Dwarven smith. Both were at work, but that was a generous term in one case. Maughin was busy tending to some metal in a furnace and instructing some of his journeymen at the same time, but Pelt was leaning on his anvil, scowling at some metal and hitting it with desultory whacks of his hammer. He was clearly hung over and not feeling it.
There was some irony in the two working side-by-side. As Erin approached, she saw Pelt grimace as someone hit a piece of metal especially hard in Maughin’s smithy. He turned and bellowed.
“Can’t your apprentices keep up a decent rhythm, Maughin? Or do all they know is how to hit something too hard!”
“Better that they have energy to spare than none at all.”
The Dullahan’s head glared back from its seat in a small basket where it could watch the metal heating in the furnace. Pelt snorted and flipped his hammer, catching it by the hilt.
“If I wanted to, I could do my job and yours. Don’t make me come over there!”
“The only time you’d come over is if we had anything to drink. Leave my apprentices alone!”
The two snapped at each other and got back to work. Erin eyed Pelt. Hm. Now, what had her friendly guides to the city said? You went to Maughin for reliable stuff, and Pelt for masterworks. Well, the Dwarf looked cranky, so she headed to Maughin first.
“Excuse me! Hey! Excuse me, Maughin!”
“Don’t enter the forge, Human! We’ve hot metal about! Master Maughin’s busy! If you have a request, make it at the shop! Third floor!”
A female Dullahan stopped Erin, shouting as she picked up her head. Erin backed up a few steps, but she saw Maughin’s head turn.
“Ah. Miss Solstice. Lasica and Rufelt’s acquaintance. What can I do for you?”
He walked over swiftly, motioning his apprentice back. Erin smiled up at him.
“Hey! Maughin, I was hoping I could commission a knife. Er, mine’s all dull and I thought I could use a new one. So…”
The Dullahan was frowning and shaking his head slightly.
“A knife, is it? I would oblige you, Miss Solstice, but my forge is swamped with orders. I won’t have time for at least three days to even think of something like a knife. But there are plenty of good smiths on this level. Ask about their forges. You might be able to squeeze in the order.”
“Got it! Thanks!”
He nodded and went back to work. Erin backed up.
“Well then. I guess—hey! Your name’s Pelt, right!”
The Dwarf looked up and winced as Erin walked over. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Maughin look back at her, twisting his head all the way around on his shoulders. Erin smiled as the Dwarf gave her the exact opposite of a smile.
“Oh, you. The Human. What do you want? A knife? Go to hell, I’m not taking orders, and especially not for anything that doesn’t involve lots of gold.”
“Aw. But I could use a knife and I heard you’re good. Plus, you’re not that busy.”
He sneered at her.
“I’m working on a gear. For those damn elevators. You’ve probably never seen something like this—”
He indicated the half-forged gear. Erin was a bit impressed when she looked and saw it resembled a proper gear like she’d find in a clock, teeth and all. And he was doing it by hand, which was crazy enough!
“What, that? I know gears. Yours looks nice. Big one, though. Probably needs a smaller gear to make it work. And uh, one of those rotating axle things. You sure you can’t make a knife? I can pay.”
Pelt looked at Erin. He stared at his gear, looked up, and then glared.
“No. You want a knife? A hundred gold pieces and I’ll forge you one.”
Someone laughed. Erin paused uncomfortably. She was still new to the economics of this world despite having lived here—food was cheap to an extent, but anything magical or high-quality like armor and weapons, especially enchanted ones, were exorbitant. But she was sure that a kitchen knife wasn’t worth even ten gold coins.
“Er, no thanks. I’ll ask around.”
“Get lost, then.”
Pelt turned his back on Erin at once. She glared at his back. Then she heard more laughter and a louder voice.
“Hah! If Pelt won’t make you what you want, why not stop over here, little Human lady? I might have time!”
She turned. Pelt’s forge was located next to Maughin’s, which was on the right, but on the left another smith was working. Alone, unlike Pelt who had a single Drake apprentice and Maughin’s space, which was two forges filled with workers. Erin saw a Gnoll in a large apron and nothing else waving at her. She headed over, blinking at him. He was a tall, lean fellow with long, wiry arms.
“You’re a Gnoll!”
“Well observed, Miss.”
The Gnoll leaned on his anvil, grinning toothily at her. Erin blinked, and then laughed with him. He had one of those infectiously good-natured personalities, and the attitude of joking when he spoke. She liked him at once.
“Sorry, I just thought most Gnolls don’t smith! Fur and all that.”
“Well, it does get in the way. But I’m no ordinary smith! I normally don’t work here, in fact, but I’ve rented the space for the day. How do you do? Bealt. City Gnoll and [Farrier]. At your service.”
He held out a paw, the fur singed and sooty around his hand and Erin, smiling, shook it. She felt a strong grip and a rougher paw than some of the Gnolls’ hands she’d touched.
“Erin Solstice! [Innkeeper] and uh, City Human!”
That made Bealt laugh again. He was setting up for the day with long, thin bars of metal about half a finger length’s wide, and pouring charcoal or maybe coal—Erin couldn’t honestly tell the difference if there even was one—into his furnace, arranging it just so.
“Pleased! So, you need a knife, Miss Solstice? Yours run out?”
“I think so. At least, it’s fairly dull, but I was shopping for a new knife anyways. Er, a special knife for really tough stuff like bugs or…I was thinking of cutting a Shield Spider up and serving it to some my guests!”
Bealt nearly lost his grip on his hammer. He swung around.
“Shield Spiders? And you want to cook one? Wait—you must be Miss Erin Solstice of Liscor! The crazy Human with the inn! Why didn’t I realize it before? Let me shake your hand again!”
He shook her hand, laughing, and sniffed her this time.
“Ah, but I heard of what you did. And heard more from my kin in Liscor, although I’ve not gone through to visit. Welcome twice, then! And if you need a knife, I think I can fit you in. I don’t have that much work, you see, but you might need to wait.”
“I literally have nothing else planned for today. So I can wait!”
“I mean, I’m going to be at least a few hours! I rented this space to make some horseshoes.”
Erin supposed that was a traditional blacksmith-y thing to do. But Bealt grinned.
“Yes! It’s my trade. I always like to have some ready, and Pallass has enough horses to give me all the work I need. I am a [Farrier]—do you know what that is?”
“Er…I don’t. Sorry, I was going to ask.”
“No problem! Farriers are simply a type of smith that also deals with horses. I clean their hooves, shoe them—and if they throw a shoe or get injured, I’m the one called to help them.”
Erin began to recall her vague and limited farming-related knowledge.
“Oh! So you’re almost like a horse doctor!”
“Only for the hooves, Miss Solstice. Only the hooves. But if you want to watch, I’ll show you my craft right here and now. The furnace is lit, I have my metal ready—”
He indicated the lengths of metal, and Erin stared at the bars, wondering how you’d turn that into a horseshoe. Or rather, how you’d make a perfect bend. All the Gnoll had was a hammer and a few tools. One of them looked like a long spike.
“—And I’ve got the Skills to do my work quick and easy. Better than a grumpy Dwarf or a Dullahan overworked! I can have your knife done by the end of the day, and my horseshoes as well!”
Bealt’s voice carried over to Pelt, and Maughin, both of whom turned and glared. Erin raised her eyebrows, delighted by the way the solo Bealt was needling the two experts. She raised her voice too.
“Well, if you can, I’d love to see how you make horseshoes! And a knife! I don’t know a lot about smithing, actually.”
It was the right thing to say. Bealt’s grin spread from ear to ear.
“Well then, take a seat, Miss Solstice! There’s one to be found I’m sure. And if you value your ears, maybe get a bit of wax! It gets noisy. But let me make a few shoes first! And remember this: there are many smiths, who make all sorts, from swords to knives and nails! Some make armor and some delicate art! But if you need quick work and reliable steel, always ask for the [Farrier]!”
He swung his hammer and the anvil rang with the sound. Erin was delighted with Bealt’s easy way. But she saw the other smiths glaring, and she knew that what he’d said was fighting words. And part of Erin, the devious part, sat up and began to form a plan.
Well, as second meetings went, his with Nawal had been about as poor as you could hope. Trey wondered if she’d seen his shaking knees. And he’d ruined Orthenon’s greeting to them. That scared Trey almost as much as Nawal’s wrath. Almost. Orthenon was scary, but fair. But Nawal had killed her brother the first time he’d met her.
Then again, she was still outclassed by Gazi. The half-Gazer appeared as Trey went to lunch and got his meal of fried Yellats and some actual meat—goat—along with some fresh rye bread. Trey was eating it with some tea—Chandrar had tea, but it was all dreadfully spicy stuff, sadly—and happily eating by himself. Then she appeared, and Orthenon moments later.
Neither of them carried their food with them. It was set before them when they sat, Gazi next to him, Orthenon across. The [Steward] ate the same as Trey, efficiently wielding his fork and knife. Gazi ate with similar etiquette, although she didn’t even bother tilting her head to look at her plate since her eyes could look through her skull.
Trey gulped down some of the Yellats in silence. He had good table manners, so the company fit him, as opposed to say, Teres, Mars, and Flos, all of whom ate faster and with less grace. Mars was especially bad and treated half of her foods like finger foods despite them being anything but.
“Er, hullo, Orthenon. Gazi. Good morning. Or lunch. I didn’t interrupt you greeting Nawal and the others, did I?”
“Clan Tannousin did not take offence from what I saw. But mind yourself, Trey. Chandrarian folk take perceived insults seriously, and the desert clans are especially touchy.”
Orthenon did not greet Trey. He spoke in a clipped manner as he sawed his goat meat in half and ate a slice. Trey nodded. It felt like Orthenon was one of his teachers sometimes, strict and unbending.
“Right. I understand that. Ah, did you want me to show Nawal around?”
“Perhaps. I understand Gazi is done teaching you for the day.”
The man shot a glance at Gazi, not especially friendly. She smiled toothily at him.
“Trey protests he’s overworked. And I think you want me to deal with Clan Tannousin, Orthenon.”
“Correct. You have your eyes on them?”
Gazi tapped a finger on her right cheek. Trey hadn’t noticed—you didn’t really stare at Gazi’s revolving eyes unless you didn’t want to eat—but two of her eyes had been rolled up in the back of her head all this time while the other two roamed free.
“Already watching. They appear to be settling in. I detect little guile from them. Just worry. It is in their body language. The ones mentioned were the leaders.”
Orthenon nodded, patting his lips with a handkerchief. He’d already finished eating! Trey stared. Forget Flos or Mars, Orthenon was the quickest! And somehow, the cleanliest!
“I doubt they’re spies, but if you could monitor them, I would be grateful.”
“Of course. And I will guard Reim in your absence. You ride to Germina?”
Orthenon’s brow creased slightly. Trey looked between him and Gazi, trying to read the unspoken words as much as the spoken ones. Some of Flos’ vassals did not get along, and Orthenon and Gazi’s relationship highlighted that. They were professionally courteous, but Gazi had said plainly to Trey that she and Orthenon weren’t always on the same page. Although…they had been a couple once. That boggled Trey’s mind as well.
“I will be departing tomorrow morning, yes. The Quarass must be spoken to, although I expect she will restore order quite quickly. Nevertheless, I intend to relieve Venith and Maresar and set up contacts and arrange a system while we are there. We must have Germina’s soldiers joining our army soon, not to mention their [Assassin] corps.”
“More spies for me to watch. Move them slowly. I don’t have enough eyes, especially with this one missing.”
Gazi sighed and tapped her main eye gently. It was always closed, still healing or still damaged from whomever had poked it out. Orthenon nodded brusquely.
“I will keep you informed. As for Hellios—I may have to spend weeks there, dealing with the aftermath of his Majesty’s edict. It will not be easy, although the abdication of Queen Calliope will smooth things considerably.”
“Speak to Prince Siyal. His Majesty desired his cooperation.”
“Naturally. Until then, Trey.”
The young man jumped as Orthenon looked back at him.
“His Majesty will return soon if he is travelling at full speed. No doubt he will wish to stay in Reim and you will of course accompany him. Until then, if this Nawalishifra seeks you out, accommodate her reasonable requests. She is a guest and one of rare talent. I still don’t quite understand how the Tannousin Clan was persuaded to send a caravan to us.”
Orthenon drummed his fingers on the table. Trey looked blank.
“They’re that impressive? I mean, I know that magical metal they make is really good. But how special is it?”
Both the Steward and Gazi exchanged a look over Trey’s head. Gazi smiled slightly.
“A Naq-Alrama blade would suit his Majesty. But Clan Tannousin normally charges a fortune even for a dagger made of their metal. The fact that we could persuade one of their smiths, even a young one, to journey here is a great boon. They normally take no sides, and only sell their blades at bazaars like the one we visited.”
“I understand you’re to thank for that, Trey.”
Orthenon frowned again at Trey. Sometimes he did that too, as if he was trying to figure Trey out. Gazi nodded.
“He found her by chance. But it was truly luck, because the Tannousin clan had ready Naq-Alrama steel and no one capable of smithing it, Orthenon.”
His brows snapped together.
“Really? But the girl they claimed to be a [Smith] was—”
“Their best smith died and only his daughter was able to work the Naq-Alrama steel.”
“Ah. Naturally. A female smith wouldn’t be accepted by the tribes. Or in a lot of the northern lands. Well, that is a coincidence. A fortunate one for you to find. Trey.”
Orthenon shook his head dismissively, before giving Trey another long look. The young man from England rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. Orthenon stood up, and a servant took his dishes and utensils away.
“I must return to work.”
That was how he said ‘goodbye’. But Orthenon didn’t make it out of the room. He got four steps when a voice called his name.
“Orthenon! I beg a word, if you have the time?”
The man turned. Striding towards them was a figure Trey recognized. Several figures, actually. They wore turbans and carried light clothing, often exposing their bare skin despite the sands and heat. Their leader wore a long, curved blade at his side, and the two following him were armed—one with daggers, the other with a bow and short sword. They stood out, even from the other [Soldiers] dining in the banquet hall.
They were part of the Serpent Hunters of Clais. They were a band of irregulars in Flos’ army, mercenaries who’d come to join his banners the instant they’d heard of his return. As far as Trey understood it, they were notable for two things: using envenomed blades and being String People.
String People. Quick to smile and take offence, and energetic, even at the hottest parts of the day. The man speaking to Orthenon had pale gold stitch marks around his neck, shoulders, bared midriff, and joints on his wrists and elbows. Knees too. Stitch-People could and would remove inured or damaged body parts, turning them back into cloth to be repaired. They were like Cloth Golems—only, say that and you’d get your teeth knocked out.
Now the three paused before Orthenon and their leader swept him a dramatic bow. Then again, they were always like that. The Serpent Hunters had been in Reim for months, and Trey had gotten used to them. A bit.
“Steward Orthenon, I hate to interrupt, but I crave an audience on the word of our trainees. The one his Majesty ordered us to induct into our ranks?”
“Of course. Speak.”
Orthenon turned to face the leader, who was named Jelaim. He nodded, and the Stitch-Woman beside him stepped forwards. She unsheathed her daggers and Trey gulped as he saw the blades flash out. But it was a flourish, nothing more. Jelaim grinned at him and Gazi seated at the table.
“Morning’s greetings to you, young Trey, and to you, Lady Pathseeker! You see our weapons? Enchanted blades, and poisoned in their sheaths.”
The daggers the female warriors twirled in her grip were indeed coated with a dark black substance, and the metal beneath shone bright silver, too bright for the banquet hall’s lighting. They were curved and wicked, and Trey knew the Serpent Hunters were considered some of the best warriors present at the moment.
Orthenon, who was one of the best warriors in the entire kingdom, perhaps the world, didn’t look impressed.
“I’m aware of the Serpent Hunter’s arms, Jelaim. What is your point?”
“Ah, Steward! The point is only that we lack more such weapons to give to our trainees! We have dozens now, learning our tricks and fighting, but we can give them no weapons that will not corrode with our venoms. We need weapons.”
Jelaim struck an anguished pose, and the Stitch Warriors behind him performed parodies of the same pose. That was another thing. String People could be extraordinarily dramatic. Trey almost laughed, but Orthenon just sighed.
“We have steel blades being churned out in our forges. You’ve seen Smith Daiton’s work. If you need new weapons, I can order him to focus on blades for your recruits.”
“But that is steel, Steward Orthenon. Our blades must be at least enchanted to not decay with our poisons. Can more not be spared from his Majesty’s treasury?”
Jelaim protested, looking from Orthenon to Gazi. Orthenon frowned, shaking his head.
“We have few enchanted blades, aside from the collection Mars brought, and those are already distributed amongst our officers. I understand your problem now. Mage Ulyse!”
He raised his voice. Another body turned in the hall and Trey saw a second notable group turn and move towards them. The Serpent Hunters turned as a pair of [Mages] in long robes walked towards them. But these [Mages] were also unique; both carried light parasols, bright and colorful, ostensibly to block out the sun.
But Parasol Stroll as they were known, was a [Mage] group in which each of their members carried a parasol which was enchanted to enhance their magic and even cast spells on its own, like a staff or wand other [Mages] used. The two of them, a middle-aged man and a younger woman, approached. Orthenon addressed the man swiftly.
“Mage Ulyse, Mage Mirin, I’m aware Parasol Stroll is already busy performing the work of the Mage’s Guild and coordinating the rest of Reim’s magical needs. But have you an [Enchanter] or a [Mage] capable of enchanting blades for Jelaim’s warriors?”
“Ah. Enchantments is it? We know a few spells, if only to make our parasols. But I’m afraid the task isn’t that simple. Hm. No it is not.”
Ulyse, the leader of Parasol Stroll, had distant eyes and greying hair. He never quite looked anyone in the eyes, but Trey, who was himself learning to be a [Mage], could sense his magical power hidden behind his vacant stare. Ulyse had a bright yellow parasol, which looked to be made of silk or some other shiny cloth and embroidered with moons of silver. It was closed, but Ulyse tapped the tip on the ground as he thought.
“What is the problem, Ulyse? If you need blades, we have enough to spare from the forges. Even if some are lost to the enchanting process.”
Orthenon frowned, crossing his arms. Ulyse shook his head. Despite the [Steward]’s impatience, he couldn’t be rushed as he gave his reply.
“The quality of metal…is not good. Yes. That’s how I would say it. Metal requires purity and we have seen Smith Daiton’s blades. Beautiful, but flawed. Incapable of holding enchantment, right Mirin?”
“Yes. They are combination steel. Imperfect. Good for weapons. Poor for enchantments.”
The younger [Mage] spoke up. Mirin was quiet, her face shadowed, her voice soft. She was the kind of girl Trey might have fallen in love with at home, older than him by about six years, and reluctant to speak, but erudite when she did. Orthenon nodded.
“There you have it, Captain Jelaim. We did bring in a smith from the Tannousin clan, but she is not obligated to make blades for us. I will inquire, but until then, all we have is steel.”
“Oh. Tannousin has sent one of their [Smiths]? Perhaps there is hope after all.”
Jelaim had been sagging, but now his eyes shone. He turned to Orthenon.
“Where is this smith? And how long will he stay? Does she pass through?”
“She is staying to forge a blade for his Majesty. As for the rest, I would ask that you not make requests of her until his Majesty has spoken with her clan. I must return to my work, but Trey will be able to answer you any questions you have.”
Orthenon’s brisk voice gave Trey the impression he’d be checking his watch if he had one. He turned, nodded once as a goodbye, and strode out of the banquet hall, moving so fast Trey felt the wind pass him by. That was Orthenon for you; he was like lightning on a horse too.
Jelaim didn’t seem put out by Orthenon’s speedy departure. He turned to Trey and swept another bow. Trey copied it awkwardly.
“Ah, Trey! So you’ve caused another stir! And so early yet! Not even lunch past. Have you finished your meal? I wouldn’t wish to bother you while you eat.”
“Thank you. But I’m done, uh, Captain Jelaim?”
Jelaim laughed and the other two String People behind him laughed as well. Trey turned red as Ulyse and Mirin smiled, but politely. Gazi—well, she was already grinning.
“Don’t call me Captain, Trey Atwood! Captain is a term for a class, for soldiers! True, I might be a mercenary captain, but I have none of these classes. Call me Serpent Hunter Jelaim, or Hunter Jelaim if you must stick to honorifics. But I would prefer my name and be honored to use yours!”
Trey blinked at that little speech.
“Serpent Hunter? Then that means you…hunt serpents?”
Again Jelaim laughed, slapping his thigh as if Trey was hilarious. Which, from Mirin’s quiet chuckle, he was.
“I am a [Serpent Hunter]. Not that I always hunt serpents. But from this class we have built our group. It’s a class that uses poison in our weapons, you see?”
“Of course. And you’re uh, taking new recruits? Is that what you said?”
Jelaim nodded. He gestured to the curved blade at his side.
“Training. His Majesty welcomed us into his home. We will fight his enemies of course, but he desires us to take any of the String Folk into our ranks and teach them our ways. Thus, our ranks swell with dozens of new recruits already, and perhaps hundreds or thousands should his Majesty claim a land filled with our kind.”
“Why only String People? Is that one of your rules? Do you not teach Humans?”
Jelaim shook his head.
“Not out of malice, no. But practicality. String People can take off a limb as easily as you take off clothes, Trey Atwood. If we are struck by a snake, we can remove our arm before the poison spreads. How can poison damage cloth? It may ruin it, but a new arm can always be woven. Humans are not so fortunate. It is a miracle your people ever settled Chandrar, but here you are.”
He grinned at Trey, gesturing to one of his bare shoulders, at the golden thread. Trey nodded slowly.
“Well I uh, I’m happy to help if I can. But like Orthenon said, Nawal is only here to forge a blade.”
“But you know her by name. I don’t suppose you’d be able to…? No, no, we should not intercede until his Majesty returns. When that occurs, I will ask for your help perhaps.”
Jelaim shook his head, looking crestfallen. He glanced at his companions.
“Until then, we will have to teach without venom. Perhaps dyes? To make the recruits understand a single cut to themselves is deadly. We will work on it. But I will leave you to finish your meal, courteous Trey. And you, Lady Pathseeker, Mage Ulyse and Mage Mirin.”
He bowed and the two String Warriors behind him did likewise before retreating. Trey blinked at them. He was about to return to his cold bread when the [Mage] coughed. Ulyse sat down across from Trey and blinked at him.
“Ah, Trey. I meant to speak with you.”
Trey stared at Ulyse, mouth open, about to take a bite of his bread. Ulyse stared past his ear.
“I understand Lady Gazi is quite adept at teaching. But—perhaps her focus is narrow? If we had time, one of our members would aid with your instruction, Trey Atwood. This is what I meant to bring up, an offer for later as Jelaim did.”
He said that despite Gazi being right across from him. Trey hesitated.
“Er, thank you? But Gazi’s teaching me a lot. Quite…quite a lot. I don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“Ah, but his Majesty, our [King] Flos asked. And we have been too busy to follow his wishes. And a young [Mage] should have as much instruction as possible.”
Ulyse blinked slowly at something only he could see, shaking his head sadly.
“However, Parasol Stroll is much smaller than the Serpent Hunters, as befits a group of [Mages].”
“But no less deadly.”
Gazi cut in, smiling slightly at Ulyse. The [Mage] bowed back, and Mirin raised her parasol and unfolded it. Her bright crimson-and-indigo parasol spun as she bowed, an elaborate gesture for such a simple compliment.
“You honor us, Lady Pathseeker. Our numbers do indeed allow us to fight an army many times larger, but I fear it is still a weakness. Especially since we serve as his Majesty’s sole [Mages].”
Ulyse looked mournful. Then he took Trey’s bread and began to eat it, speaking to the young man and to the air again.
“We are stretched thin. Too thin, accompanying the armies in Hellios and Germina to provide magical aid and protection, as well as to send basic [Message] spells. Reim lacks for [Mages]; all left in his Majesty’s slumber. And Reim never had as many [Mages] as some nations even in its glory. Only the one was famed throughout the world.”
Mirin nodded. She spoke quietly.
“Amerys. If she were here, his Majesty Flos would not need to fear enemy [Mages], at least. One wonders why she has remained in Wistram. Perhaps she truly has turned traitor. A strange thought, though.”
The word came from Gazi. And it was so heavy that Ulyse’s eyes focused on her and both he and Mirin as well as Trey hesitated. All four of Gazi’s eyes had focused for a moment on Mirin. And her smile was gone.
At once, both [Mages] stood up. Ulyse nodded.
‘We’ve given offence.”
“It was not taken.”
Gazi smiled, but it was her fake smile that Trey had learned to spot. And Ulyse was not fooled either.
“We leave you to your lunch, Trey. But one more thing. I think you still have a staff in your quarters? Mirin complains that it gives off an aura at night.”
“How did you—”
“It was a powerful staff you took from the [Geomancer]. A useful tool for magic, but not if you lack the spells or experience to control it. We can teach you how to use it to augment your powers. I will speak to Orthenon or Lady Gazi when we have time to teach you more spells. Until then, Trey Atwood.”
He bowed and turned. Both of Parasol Stroll headed away from their table. Trey stared at their backs, at his now-empty plate, and at Gazi.
“Are all of King Flos’ vassals a bit crazy like that, Gazi?”
The half-Gazer looked at Trey with all four eyes and he shuddered. But then her eyes focused and two rolled back in her head.
“They are all unique, Trey. As people are. I am no longer hungry.”
“Because of what Ulyse said about er, Amerys? He’s a bit weird, but he doesn’t’ mean—”
“I don’t take offence from him, Trey. But what he said is true. Amerys was loyal. If she is not returned, it is concerning. We need her. And if she is an enemy, we must know.”
Gazi stood up. She walked away from the table and a servant took her plate. She spoke without looking back at Trey.
“I will find you tomorrow to practice more spells. This time bring the staff. You will learn to cast [Featherfall] with it.”
Trey gulped, but he didn’t dare protest. Then Gazi was gone too, and Trey had to return his plate and cup to the servants in the kitchen himself.
A room, no, a kingdom full of adults who all knew more than he did. All busy, all with their own interests, which were all in service to Flos. It was enough to make Trey lose his marbles sometimes. He wandered out of the banquet hall before someone else could find him. Trey hurried down the corridors of servants until he reached one of the unused wings of the palace reserved for guests, where far less people visited.
And then he was alone. No Gazi, none of Flos’ vassals. Just alone to do whatever he pleased. Which was what Trey had wanted, but somehow it left him empty.
“Swords with poison. Orthenon going to talk to the Quarass and a [Queen]. [Mages] with their spells. And what am I supposed to do? What about you, Teres? How useful are we to Flos except as…as entertainment? Inspiration for him?”
Trey scuffed along the corridor, scowling. He didn’t know how strong Jelaim was, but the Stitch Man looked fit and agile and his companion had made those curved daggers flash. He’d seen Orthenon and Gazi fight. And he could feel Ulyse and Mirin’s power radiating from them and their parasols. It made Trey feel like an ant. So, and because Gazi expected him to, he began to practice magic. Of all the things in this world, that alone was actually fun.
“[Light]. [Sand Arrow]. Combine it to…[Lightsand Arrow]!”
A ball of light appeared, and then a spinning projectile of dust, of sand, forming into a blunt projectile. The two merged, and a flash of light shot down the hallway, busting into a shower of sand that would have blinded a foe. Trey grinned—he could perform that spell with his bare hands! He shot another [Lightsand Arrow].
It was a weak spell, but it could blind an opponent and Gazi had taught him to aim perfectly with it. He hit a patch on the wall, a spot on the ceiling—and then saw the [Servant] with the dust cloth down the corridor glaring at him. She was cleaning and he was getting the sand everywhere.
“Sorry. I’ll clean it up. [Sand Sprite].”
Trey instantly folded his hands behind his back. Meekly, he conjured the sand on the ground towards him. It flowed across the ground, leaving the stone hallway spotless once more. And in front of Trey, a little golem of sand rose upwards. The [Servant] stopped glaring at Trey long enough to stare at the golem in puzzlement. Not because the golem itself was that unusual—although it was a fairly tricky spell, even temporarily—but because of how it looked.
The little figure looked like an odd, bobbleheaded figure like one of those cheap plastic figurines from Earth. It had a simple head with two big eyes, a crude body which didn’t match the oversized head, and a spear made of sand. It had nothing approaching a normal Human’s anatomy, or that of any other creature in this world.
Golems, spells, everything was based on a [Mage]’s image of the spell. Trey’s unique version of the miniature sand golems weren’t like anything other [Mages] could create. Mainly because his were ungainly and impractical, based on toy designs rather than form and function. Gazi had pronounced his sand sprites the ugliest, most useless creations in history. But she’d still praised him for learning the spell.
“Walk. And uh, don’t get sand anywhere.”
Trey ushered the little sand sprite golem down the hallway away from the servant. It trundled in front of him, walking oddly, balancing its huge head. Trey let it walk towards a window, and then couldn’t resist.
“Attack! Me, I guess?”
The little sand golem whirled around and nearly fell over. But it lunged at Trey with commendable speed and began whacking him with its little spear. He watched, tickled by the sensation. The sand sprite’s tiny spear was about as painful as, well, being hit by some soft sand. That was the flaw with sand golems, apparently. They were weak, easy to scatter, but held an advantage over other materials in that they were easy to conjure and maintain. Especially in Chandrar.
“Why can’t this be all I do?”
Trey mused as he squatted down and conjured another sand sprite to duel the first. This one had a sword and a shield and the two little figures hit each other and charged, a mockery of real fighting. Yes, this was what Trey liked. There was no danger to this. He wasn’t hurting anyone. But he was casting magic, and creating these little creatures out of his mind. Why couldn’t he just do this? Why did he need to be one of the two people Flos, the King of Destruction wanted by his side? Why did Trey have to be his moral compass? He was only sixteen. He was only…
The young man looked up. The two sand sprites turned into lumps of sand as he lost control of them. He looked up, and saw a veiled girl, clutching a dagger at her side, approaching him. Nawalishifra stopped and stared at the young man crouching in front of the pile of sand.
Trey stood up hurriedly, wiping his hands and blowing the sand out of the open window. He smiled at Nawal. At least she was around his age. Well, a bit older. But at least she was like him a bit. And he rather fancied her. He wondered what Teres would think when she met Nawal. He hoped no one would get stabbed.
Nawal saw the young man stand up. The little golem of sand he’d been watching, collapsed. He flicked his fingers as he rose, and the sand blew upwards in a narrow funnel, out the window. She blinked at the sight. He was a [Mage]! She’d thought he was just some…well, just some servant. But he knew magic!
In her internal estimation of him, Trey rose another notch. Perhaps he really was someone special. The King’s Steward had spoken highly of him. But Nawal couldn’t help but remember the awkward stranger who’d come asking about her tent in the bazaar. And because she needed to, she approached Trey and spoke.
“I have been looking for you. You remember me? Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin? And you, you Trey Atwood, who pretended to be a humble person of a common master when you served the King of Destruction? A fine trick you played on me!”
She glared at him, hand on her dagger, but with less heat than she might have otherwise had. Trey backed up a step.
“Uh, Nawal! Sorry. I mean, it’s good to see you again. I didn’t expect to see you so soon—I mean, I didn’t ask you to make that vow! And his Majesty did pay your clan, right? He really wanted to have one of your magical swords.”
“A Naq-Alrama blade. Not a ‘magical sword’. And he paid, or else we would not be here. But what he paid for was our journey, not the blade itself. Not that I would doubt the King of Destruction, and you should not either, as his loyal servant.”
Nawal tossed her head, adjusting the veil so she wouldn’t inhale it. Trey winced.
“Right. Er, sorry. But it is good to see you.”
That surprised Nawal. She flushed, and drew the veil more tightly around her face. Were all foreigners like Trey so forwards? She glared at him.
“We hardly know each other.”
“Um. Yeah. But we’re around the same age. You’re a bit older, but there’s few people my age in the castle. I was hoping to find you, actually. I could show you around? If you want me to. And I’d like you to meet my sister when she returns. You two might be friends.”
His sister? Friends? She was here to smith. But Trey was treating her as if they were two childhood friends from the same clan. She glared, but then decided to jump on this chance.
“I may meet your sister in the fullness of time, Trey Atwood. But I would take you up on your offer. I am new to the King of Destruction’s palace. And I have some questions for you.”
“Uh? Well, okay. I don’t know everything, but ask away. What did you want to know?”
Trey made a stupid face. Nawal rolled her eyes. She gestured around the bare corridor, where a servant was cleaning the hall. It had no artwork, or statues or suits of armor. It was just…a hallway. In a palace, but it lacked even a carpet, and the windows weren’t made of glass.
“I have walked around the palace. And seen my quarters. The beds are of cotton. Tell me, do the beds in your room consist of cotton or silk? Or do you sleep on stone, as a lesser servant?”
“I’m not a servant.”
Trey frowned, contradicting what Orthenon had said. He frowned.
“My bed? It’s cotton. Nice. Why do you ask?”
So maybe it wasn’t a slight. Nawal gestured around the palace.
“Simply because this is the home of the King of Destruction, is it not? His seat of power in Reim? His base from which he once conquered all of Chandrar and launched a campaign against the rest of the world?”
“…I guess. Why?”
Nawal stared at Trey. He gave her another stupid look. She stamped her foot.
“Well then! Why are his halls not filled with grand carpets hundreds of feet long? Why were only four servants sent to escort us to our quarters? Why are the beds not made of silk, even for his servants? Where is his fabled armory? The ten thousand swords of myth and legend that he won in a thousand battles? Surely some still remain. What of the artworks, the statues and wonders carried from around the world? Have all gone? And this palace—is this truly his home?”
Trey gaped at Nawal. He looked around, and stared at her.
“Beds made of silk? Grand treasury? I’ve never heard of anything like that. Flos—er, his Majesty used to have a lot of stuff, it’s true. But it’s all gone now. And this is his palace. Why do you ask?”
Nawal shook her head. How could he not know? Even as a foreigner?
“It was said that the King of Destruction’s citadel was larger than one could imagine, that the spires on top of the towers reached beyond the clouds.”
“Of course! How do you not know of this? Every child is told the King of Destructions’ story, of his grandeur! I came here expecting to see his castle rising out of the ground for hundreds of miles. Instead I found his city poor and his palace worthy of any [King], but not of him.”
“Yeah, well, he was asleep—or rather, he was depressed—for about twenty years. A lot of stuff went bad, or so Orthenon and Gazi said. And why does it matter? I thought a lot of Chandrar hated the King of Destruction. Most of the world does, apparently.”
Trey shrugged uncomfortably. Nawal stared at him. Then she turned.
“Why would that matter? He was still the King of Destruction. His myths still are told like tales of old. Hate him. Love him. But he was a legend worthy of Chandrar.”
She had grown up hearing his stories as a baby. Nawal stared at the plain servant, who was scrubbing at a stain on the wall. She shook her head again.
“Have you not heard one of the King of Destruction’s tales? Of his city of Reim, fairest in the world? How he turned it from a small kingdom no one knew into a world power? It was said that in those days when his strength was at its peak, the streets of his cities flowed with wealth. No one wanted for food or drink, and even the beggars were richer than some [Lords]. Every day caravans of treasures taken from far-off lands would flow into his kingdom, and heroes and adventurers from across the world would journey here, to seek his favor and fight in his name.”
She didn’t even mention the harems filled with [Princesses] and brides from across the world, or the stories of his rooms filled with the skulls of his enemies, or the dungeons in which his enemies were fated to live and suffer eternally. One would assume the virginal brides were all far older by this point, and that those kept in the dungeons expired. And if there were rooms full of skeletons, a prudent visitor would never inquire about them.
“Really? He had all that?”
Trey looked at Nawal, his eyes slightly wide. She looked back and saw he didn’t know. That hurt part of her. She’d thought that at least that legend had spread about the world. Chandrar had little to boast of sometimes.
But while those from other nations might sometimes laugh at the poor folk of the desert, they would all stop laughing when they asked what Chandrar had wrought in the last hundred years. Because the answer was always the King of Destruction. And for all he had been a terrible figure, he had made the world look to Chandrar with fear and awe.
“These are all things said of the King of Destruction’s city, Trey Atwood. These and more. I came here expecting to see some of that, even if it had faded. I saw so little I believed it to be an insult, a mirage. Is there anything like that? Anything you could show me?”
Nawal waited, hoping for Trey to say yes, to say that there was some legacy of that grandeur left. But he only bit his lip and hesitated. And part of the hope in Nawal’s chest, that youthful girl hearing stories around the campfire, died in her chest. She looked around the bare corridor and her heart sank.
Was this all that remained? Or, worse, had the legends been true to begin with?
“Sorry, Nawal. I don’t remember seeing anything like that. No caravans of treasure. No…well, Mars had an armory of magical swords. And there is gold in the treasury. But I don’t think there’s nearly as much as you think.”
Trey looked doubtful as he shook his head. Nawal stared at him, then closed her eyes.
“Then perhaps the King of Destruction’s legend is just that. A myth. A fable. I was a fool to think otherwise, naïve that I am. I thank you for telling me the truth, Trey Atwood.”
She turned. And there, lounging against a wall, suddenly there and making both Nawal and Trey jump, was Gazi. The half-Gazer grinned as Nawal unsheathed her dagger and Trey yelped.
“So you are disappointed, Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin? Is this palace not enough, though you were offered the right of guests under my lord’s roof? Only say so now and I will answer your complaint.”
There she was, leaning against the wall. Neither Trey nor Nawal had seen her appear, nor had the servant cleaning the hall, who’d frozen, eyes wide as she stared at Lady Gazi Pathseeker. Gazi of Reim. Nawal’s breath grew tight in her chest. She had met Gazi once, but under an illusion spell. Now, up close, she was terrifying.
Gazi the Omniscient. That was one of her names. Another was Dunestalker. A terror of the night, an assassin who hunted other spies and traitors, anyone who would threaten her [King]. She at least was the same as her legends.
Oh, you might not think so if you just saw her. Gazi’s almost rusty, scale armor wasn’t impressive and her claymore, for all it was brilliantly made, wasn’t obviously magical. But Nawal knew of steel and she knew both armor and sword were not of steel. Or any metal she could identify at a glance, for that matter. The unique coloration of the armor told her it wasn’t adamantine, and the claymore wasn’t mithril, but neither were they common metals either.
“I—I did not seek to give offence Lady Gazi. I only meant that I expected to see the wonders of his Majesty’s palace. Not—”
Nawal realized her little dagger was out and she sheathed it quickly. Gazi smiled, but it was no welcoming smile. It was almost perfectly crafted to make Nawal shudder, a smile with malice hidden behind the curve of the lips. Trey was staring at Gazi, not with fear, but with confusion. He must be mad, or he hadn’t heard of her stories either.
Gazi detached from the wall and walked around Nawal as the [Smith] froze in place. Her voice was soft, pleasant but for the metal buried beneath the gentle tone.
“Sometimes legends grow until they are too big to fit reality, Nawalishifra Tannousin. Sometimes. And sometimes they fade. But hold your judgment until you have seen my lord in person once more. And when you walk through this palace, remember you see ruin. Two decades of despair. You and your clan have come to restore part of what was lost.”
“I—yes. Of course.”
“Good. You understand that. Then I welcome you still. But mind your words under this roof. And Trey?”
“Escort Nawal around the palace yourself. And keep her away from Orthenon. If he had heard what she had said, I doubt he would be so understanding.”
Gazi walked away from them. Quick, and despite her armor, silent. She turned a corner and was gone. Nawal remembered to breathe after that. That was Dunestalker. Silent. The King’s protector in the shadows. If you so much as breathed a word of dissent against the King of Destruction, she would cut you down. Oh, but Nawal had make a mistake! She looked at Trey, trying not to let her teeth chatter.
“D-do you think I gave offence?”
“To Gazi? No. No, that sounded like uh, one of her friendly threats. But she is right. I don’t think Orthenon would like you saying that.”
Trey looked troubled. Nawal wanted to laugh.
“I would never speak so in his hearing!”
“Really? But you’re speaking to me—”
Nawal shook her head. Both she and Trey stepped out of the way of the servant as she came down the corridor. They began walking, if only so Nawal could put Gazi’s ominous words behind her. She spoke briskly to Trey, taking solace in his simple nature. He couldn’t be that important and be so ignorant, could he?
“A woman should not speak to a man in the open, as he is in the midst of his work. By the same token, a man should not approach a woman before seeking her husband or brother or father first. In private, things are less important, and between family of course exceptions exist. But if I spoke to the King’s Steward? I would cut off my ears rather than hear of such idiocy from another of my clan!”
“But you’re speaking to me and I’m male.”
Nawal snorted. Trey looked very hurt, so she explained.
“You’re a foreigner. You don’t count. Besides, I must see the King of Destruction’s forges if I am to work there, and neither Hesseif nor Silmak is willing to go. Those fools, they wish only to gossip of the King of Destruction’s legends and look about like children. But I am here to forge. So take me there, Trey Atwood.”
“Yes! Surely the King of Destruction has his need for [Blacksmiths], even if they do not forge magical works of art with each passing day, each greater than the last! Surely he needs nails and tools for his servants to work! He does have forges, does he not?”
Nawal threw up her hands. She was going to hit Trey if he said no. The young man hesitated.
“I’m sure he does. No, he definitely does! There’s at least one master smith—of course, I can take you right to him!”
That was a relief. Nawal nodded and bowed.
“Lead on, then.”
Trey hesitated. He looked around, forwards, back, and then sheepishly pointed back at the servant making her way down the hall, grumbling about sand and [Mages].
“Uh, let me ask where to go.”
It took Trey fifteen minutes and two more servants to locate the forges. They weren’t in the castle, but outside of the main palace, for reasons that soon became obvious. The instant he approached the open-air forge, Trey was overwhelmed by the heat emanating from one of the furnaces, and the air was filled with the ringing of hammers on metal. He approached timidly, but made his way to one of the [Smiths]—mainly because Nawal was pushing him the entire way.
“Excuse me? Is Blacksmith Daiton here? I’m showing a guest around the palace, and uh—”
Trey shouted at a laboring apprentice. The young man looked up, saw that it was Trey, and his eyes widened.
“Sir Trey! Let me get Master Daiton at once!”
He sprang up and hurried over to an older man with grey hair and a growing bald spot on his head. The [Blacksmith] came over, and Trey was astounded to have his hand shaken at once as the friendly smith came over. He knew Trey was one of Flos’ personal followers, and he was overjoyed to have Trey here. And when he learned Nawal was a fellow [Smith], his grin spread ear to ear.
“I am Daiton, master [Blacksmith] of his Majesty’s forges. You won’t find a better smith in all of Reim, or Germina or Hellios, I’d wager! There are plenty of low-level sorts as we’re in demand, but I’m the most high-level—and oldest—by far in the area. It’s a delight to have you, Sir Trey, and you, young lady. Are you an apprentice by chance? It’s rare to have a woman practicing the craft, but welcome! I’d be honored if you used my forge so long as it’s here.”
He addressed Nawal directly, but she refused to reply. She’d suddenly turned shy. Nawal half-hid herself behind Trey, keeping her eyes to the ground and peeking around the forge furtively. She whispered to Trey urgently into his ear.
“Tell him I thank him for the great compliment, and that I hope to learn from his expertise. Tell him I am Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin.”
Trey half-turned, frowning at Nawal.
“Why don’t you say it? You’re right—”
He received a jab to the back and a glare. Oh, right. Daiton was a native Chandrarian and Nawal was female. The [Smith] girl hissed at Trey.
“Er, sorry Master Daiton. This is Nawal. Ow! Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin. She’s a [Blacksmith] come to forge a sword for his Majesty.”
“A smith of clan Tannousin?”
Daiton’s eyes widened and several of the workers who’d heard looked around. Daiton immediately gave Nawal another look, but her eyes were lowered and her veil was tightly around her face.
“I’ve heard Tannousin smiths are some of the best in the deserts. And a female smith? I thought—no matter. You’re welcome twice over then, ah, Nawalish—Nawali—Nawal of Tannousin. Perhaps we could swap techniques, if you’d trade secrets.”
“She would accept that gladly, Master Daiton.”
Trey answered for Nawal. He looked around, listening to the whisper in his ear.
“Uh, Nawal wonders if this is your entire forge. Could we have a tour, maybe?”
Daiton nodded at once.
“Please, step inside. But mind the steel and sparks! This is indeed his Majesty’s forge. We have other buildings, but they’re disused so this is the only active forge. Plenty of room, though! I’ve been here since his Majesty went into his slumber and I waited right here until he woke up. I’d do it for another ten years without hesitation.”
He puffed his chest out, and Trey nodded appreciatively. Daiton gestured at the men working around the forge.
“I have eight workers I’m training. Journeymen [Blacksmiths], apprentices…I’m hoping to double that number when I can trust my senior workers by myself. And have at least forty men working the forges around the hour in a few months! Even if Germina and Hellios start producing, there will be a great need for fresh weapons and armor, repairs, and that’s only for armies! Nails for houses, parts for barrels and axles for wagons, tools for every sort of craft—”
One of the younger apprentices, younger than even Trey, groaned as he labored over an arrowhead. Daiton scowled at him.
“You want to be a [Fletcher]? Half of it’s making the arrowheads, Fedi! Don’t complain, you’ll level up! And once we have more craftsmen flowing back into the capital, you’ll stop having to make arrowheads all day long.”
“So your forge makes all the materials for the kingdom?”
Trey looked around, impressed. That was a lot of work! Daiton shook his head.
“Not all. But weapons? The vast majority. There’re two other [Smiths] in Reim at the moment, but they handle more mundane work. Myself? I make blades for his Majesty. Come and see. This is my signature work.”
He led Trey over to a barrel of swords. Daiton pulled one out and Trey whistled as he saw a flash of steel. The smith handed the blade to Trey.
“Don’t worry, the edge isn’t sharpened yet. But this is a complete sword, one of many we’re making for the army. They’ve got old weapons, but new steel’s vital and we’re working around the clock here to meet that demand. We’re hoping to have two hundred swords made and four times that many spears if we keep getting enough wood.”
“It’s so light!”
Trey had held Teres’ sword, but he was already impressed at how balanced and how light swords actually were. Nothing like the heavy things he’d imagined. Daiton laughed.
“Light and strong! You can flex that one and it won’t bend or snap! And look—this is what I meant by signature. See the steel? Give it a close look.”
Trey did. And then he saw what Daiton meant. There was a pattern on the blade! The steel wasn’t one, shiny uniform color. His eyes widened as he stared at the curvy lines running down the blade.
“Bugger me. Is that…I’ve seen this pattern before!”
Damascus steel. It looked exactly like it! Trey stared at the fine, wavy lines on the metal of the sword, almost like the patterns of wood grain, or water running through the steel. Daiton puffed out his chest, delighted that Trey had noticed.
“Ah, sir! You have an eye for steel? You recognize the decoration? It’s pattern-steel. Forged from multiple types of steel, forge-welded and hammered together…all my swords are like that! Although you can only see the pattern on these ones.”
He indicated the swords in the barrel.
“These are obviously swords meant for officers. Note the etching and the hilt work? The rest of my apprentices can make swords to various degrees of quality, but we don’t bother etching those with acid.”
“Wow. That’s incredible!”
Each of the swords had its own unique pattern, and as Trey looked around, he saw more swords in the process of being made. And each one was made like that?
“It’s all pattern-welded, as I said. That’s my style. I take multiple layers of steel, forge them together and create a blade out of the result. You see, it adds to the strength of the finished product and it produces this lovely pattern. As steel forging goes, you’re hard-pressed to beat it.”
Daiton showed Trey what he meant. He’d taken several flat pieces of steel and melted the ends together. That turned into a ‘billet’, or a solid chunk of steel.
“See, the trick is you take these individual pieces and squeeze them together. Thus, weaker steels mix with the good if there are impurities or flaws, and the entire piece is stronger—and beautiful if you take the time to work it right. It’s a technique I use for every sword, and his Majesty himself has used some of my blades—although he breaks them with every other swing!”
Daiton laughed and Trey, reminded of Flos’ insane strength, had to laugh too. He looked at Nawal who was inspecting the sword Daiton had first shown Trey.
She didn’t look nearly as impressed as Trey thought. She peered at the edge and tapped the metal with her fingernail. She frowned closely at the pattern, then shook her head slightly. Daiton didn’t notice, but Trey walked back over.
“Isn’t it beautiful? Daiton’s a good smith, isn’t he?”
He desperately wanted Nawal to see something wonderful in Flos’ palace to impress her. But the veiled girl only looked p and shook her head.
“For art, and an officer’s blade I suppose? But it’s just a pattern. No more.”
“But that’s Damascus steel. It’s legendary, isn’t it? Really tough and really strong?”
Trey protested. That was Damascus, right? But Nawal was shaking her head.
“It’s not. I’ve seen steels with a similar pattern—you mean the steel that naturally has these little lines, don’t you? That’s a pure steel. Superior to this. This—this is just a pattern, made by the metal.”
Trey deflated slightly at Nawal’s mater-of-fact voice.
“Oh. But this is still a good sword, right?”
The look Nawal gave him was…well, it went straight through Trey. She leaned over and whispered to Trey as Daiton came back.
“Ask him to show you the ones he’s made. Not his apprentices.”
“Anything the matter? I can show Miss Tannousin my process if she wishes.”
Daiton beamed at them. Trey gulped.
“Uh, Nawal was wondering if you had any of your blades she could see, Master Daiton.”
The man looked confused. He gestured to the sword Nawal was holding.
“Miss, uh, Nawal is holding it there.”
That was what Trey had thought. But Nawal gave both of them a surprised look. She eyed the blade again, closing one eye to stare at the metal. She tapped it and shook her head. She gestured at Trey and he leaned over.
“What’s the matter? That’s the sword Daiton made.”
“But it’s impure. The steel isn’t that good. It’s a poor sword. Tell him that.”
“What? No it’s not. I can’t just—”
Daiton looked concerned. Trey glanced at his face and gestured helplessly at the blade.
“It’s uh, Nawal is just studying the metal. She’s uh, wondering about the quality. Of the metal?”
The smith nodded understandingly.
“It’s a fair question. We have to buy iron scrap—it used to be we got our shipments via caravan, but I suppose now we’ll have access to Hellios’ iron mines. That would certainly improve the quality of the iron. And our steel. Still, the pattern-welding accommodates even for poor stuff, so I’m confident we could do twice as many swords per week if…”
He stopped as Nawal finished inspecting the blade. She put it slowly in the barrel and turned to Trey.
“It’s a bad sword.”
This time Daiton heard. The smith’s jovial expression turned to shock and then anger in a second. Nawal glanced at him and then looked at Trey.
“Ask him how he made it.”
“He showed us, Nawal. With the metal and—”
Trey glanced fearfully at Daiton’s face. Nawal stared at one of the apprentices.
“And he takes the steel afterwards and has his apprentices forge it? Like that? Out in the open?”
She pointed. A journeyman was taking a solid billet of the pattern-welded steel and striking it with a hammer. The white-hot metal was being hammered out until it was longer, and longer.
“Um—er, Master Daiton—”
Daiton scowled at Nawal. He addressed her directly.
“Yes. That’s my process, girl! What of it? Look, this is how I do my work!”
He strode over and interrupted the journeyman at his task. Daiton took the hammer and began pounding away at the metal, glaring daggers at Nawal the entire while. Trey blinked. The journeyman had been hammering at the metal, but as Daiton struck it, the anvil rang with the force of his blows. Everyone turned to look as the metal began to flatten ten times as fast under Daiton’s hammer as the other men.
It wasn’t just strength; Trey saw a man with huge arm muscles hitting a piece of metal an apprentice held with a huge mallet of a hammer and not moving it half as fast a Daiton. As the metal in front of Daiton cooled, Trey saw that he’d lengthened it a good foot. He picked it up with his tongs and put it back in the furnace to reheat. He strode back to Nawal, glaring at her.
“With my Skills, I can cut the time it takes to make a sword in half! Do you know of another [Blacksmith] who can work like that? I have over a dozen Skills that help me with shaping the metal quickly! [Steady Rhythm], [Malleable Metal], [Twicelasting Fires], [Blazing Forge]—”
He began listing off Skills on his sooty fingers. He was glaring now and Trey was afraid Nawal’s sharp tongue had ruined Daiton’s goodwill. But Nawal was staring defiantly past Daiton’s shoulder, still not meeting his eyes. She looked at Trey.
“Tell Master Daiton that he has the Skills to move metal faster and with more ease. But that does not change what I said. His steel is poor steel. Poor quality of metal. And his swords are likewise flawed.”
The forge suddenly went silent. Trey hadn’t realized everyone was listening. Now the hammers went still and everyone looked at Nawal. She refused to meet anyone’s gaze but Trey’s. Daiton rumbled ominously.
“That is—I’ve had fellow [Smiths] insult my work before, but never to my face. And never in my own forge! You claim my work is flawed, girl? My steel is poor? Try one of my swords! And look at me! Do you have a problem with my skills and experience?”
Nawal refused to meet Daiton’s eyes. She looked deliberately at Trey.
“Trey Atwood. Deliver a message to Master Daiton. Tell him he should melt down his hammer and use it for scrap metal where it would do some good. Or cut off his hands and live with the goats, old fool that he is for thinking he produces fine craftsmanship. I have seen better swords rusting in the sands, young though I am. I spit on the idea that he is a master smith worthy of working in the King of Destruction’s forges!”
Her voice rang in the silence. Trey’s mouth hung open in silence. So did half the men in the shop. The other half straightened, and the look in their eyes was murderous. Trey glanced up at Daiton and flinched at the look in the older smith’s eyes. He spread his hands and looked around nervously.
“Uh, what I think she meant to say was—”
Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin had a reputation. Believe it or not, she was known to have something of a sharp tongue. Something of an attitude. Woman or not, her blistering remarks and insults had been known to cut more than one manhood down to size. That was why the elders and headman of her tribe had feared to send her out. Not just because she might give offence as a woman, but because her tongue might get her into trouble.
Actually, that had been true both of Nawal and her brother, Allaif. Where his over-exaggerated promises and sometimes outright lies and flattery had gotten the clan into trouble, Nawal’s remarks had been just as disastrous. But Bezha, Silmak, and Hesseif had all known Nawal since she was a child and it had been hoped they would be enough to rein her in.
But no one had expected her to create this much of a disaster on the first day. Nawal stood, not exactly staring past Bezha as the older woman screamed at her outside of the forge. All the [Smiths] in the King of Destruction’s employ were engaged with a glaring contest with the Tannousin folk, and the forge had gone to a standstill.
“Nawal, you fool, you imbecile! Did we not say to mind your tongue? Instead you have given offence at the first sign! And now a bet?”
“I simply said that I could forge a better blade than the so-called Master Daiton could within the span of a day. I spoke no lies. He was the one who challenged me to prove my words, and so I will.”
Nawal tossed her head. She ducked as Bezha took a swing at her face.
“You idiot! You sharp-tongued cow of a hornet, you! Why say that? Why challenge the King of Destruction’s personal smith? What difference is a bit of skill?”
Nawal caught the second slap headed towards her face. She spoke sharply.
“It is not just skill, Bezha! It is the quality of the metal itself! Or did you not see and test the swords? Look, you fool with your eyes only towards me!”
She pointed. Both she and stared around the forge. They stared at the angry [Blacksmiths], at the metal chunks and billets of steel waiting to be hammered out, and at the swords in progress.
After Nawal’s insult, Daiton had been on the verge of throwing her and Trey out of the forge. Until she’d made her claim. Then he’d lost his temper for real and demanded she bring her clan. Which she’d done. All thirty two of them were gathered outside the forge, and Hesseif and Silmak were inspecting the swords that Daiton had so proudly shown Trey, doing the same inspection of the metal.
They were also eying the crucible steel, the round mounds of steel that Daiton and his apprentices forged from raw iron. Nawal was familiar with the process and she could see the raw metal sitting, waiting to be pounded into billets. But it was bad metal. And as Silmak approached and handed Bezha one of the crucibles, her face changed to a look of dismay.
Crucibles. Trey, who was standing and watching from the side, looking very nervous, had to be explained what they were by one of Daiton’s apprentices. Nawal of course knew instantly. Crucibles were the containers in which you smelted metals, transforming it like in the case of iron, into steel.
In this case, Daiton used little pots, about the size of two hands in height, which he’d fill with cast iron on the bottom, pure iron and a bit of charcoal higher up. Then he’d seal the pot to make it airtight, and heat it up hot in a smelter. If done right, you’d get a puck of steel, which was actual steel as opposed to weaker iron.
That in itself was worthy of praise—not every [Blacksmith] could refine steel so well. And as Daiton shouted, it was an insult to think his steel was inferior to any other metal.
“It’s beautiful metal! You look at this, Sir Trey! Tell that girl, who won’t even look me in the eye, that this is quality metal! See how it’s flawless?”
He showed Trey the puck of metal and Trey had to agree. The steel wasn’t smooth, but it looked like one solid bit of metal. But that was because he was an amateur. Bezha was staring at the puck, and then the bar of flattened steel that one of the apprentices had made out of it.
“The grain of the metal is so large. And they made it from this? I can see the slag on the bottom. Did they remove the impurity?”
“No. Look. This is the bar one of the apprentices was using.”
Silmak handed Bezha one of the straightened pieces of metal, a long rectangle of steel. It was fairly straight and ready to be transformed, Nawal could give it that. But Bezha recoiled as she saw the soot and griminess of the metal.
“That’s how city smiths do their work?”
“In open air forges, no less. If they were making something simple I could understand. But blades?”
Silmak shook his head. He looked at the sword Hesseif was inspecting, and then raised his voice as he addressed the rest of his clan.
“Nawalishifra is right. A Tannousin [Blacksmith] would never work so. The steel is inferior; a blacksmith of our clan could make a superior sword.”
A rumble went through the listening smiths. The Tannousin clan members looked at each other, nodding silently in agreement. Daiton’s face purpled, but Trey seized his arm.
“Master Daiton! They’re guests of his Majesty!”
“Guests or not, I won’t have some tribe—even Tannousin—stride into my forge and insult me! That girl claims she can make a better sword? Prove it or get out and never sully my forge again!”
He pointed at Nawal. All eyes went to her. Bezha closed hers, but didn’t argue as Silmak and Hesseif looked at Nawal.
“Nawal. Can you forge a sword today?”
“If you prepare my space, I will.”
Silmak nodded. He turned and clapped his hands.
“Clear the space. We need brooms. Water.”
“They can use one of our spaces. Listen up, lads! This is a contest! These outsiders think our blades are pig iron crap! Well, I’ve a mind to forge a sword and shove it down their throats!”
Daiton turned and roared at his apprentices, who let out a hoarse cheer. They rushed into the forge, clearing a spot as they glared at the Tannousin. The clan split the forge down the center as Daiton’s people evacuated, and to Trey’s astonishment, began clearing everything out of the way!
Tools, the other anvils, even the ground. A broom appeared, and then a bucket of water. The clan washed the floor as they carted out all of the objects in their side of the room. Daiton turned red again, but he whirled around as the Tannousin clan emptied the forge of everything.
They left a single anvil in the large space they’d cleared. But they didn’t bother filling the forge with charcoal, and instead, Silmak, their leader, produced some chalk and began drawing on the floor! He drew a huge circle around the anvil as Hesseif and three other men returned, lugging a huge box made of…stone?
Yes, it was a stone box which they set on a stand of stone at chest height. Trey peeked inside and saw the interior of the box was filled with glowing runes. His eyes stung and he wiped them. Then he realized the circle that Silmak was drawing was filled with the same runes.
“Excuse me, what are you doing?”
“Trey Atwood. I am preparing Nawalishifra’s forging space. Please, do not interfere with the circle. I would tell you of its nature, but these are Tannousin secrets, and I ask you to look away.”
Reluctantly, Trey did. Silmak finished drawing on the stone floor of Daiton’s shop with the chalk and clapped his hands. The circle blazed with magical light and Daiton swore.
“Magic? In my shop? Are you trying to enchant that anvil? It doesn’t matter if the anvil or the hammer’s enchanted! With my Skills—”
“We are not enchanting anything. We are preparing a space. The metal decides the quality of the sword. Not the tools used.”
Nawal snapped at Daiton, although she had to glare at Trey to do it. The smith turned purple again, but he turned and stalked off, leaving Silmak to finish preparing. He shouted at his apprentices.
“Get me some of our unfinished swords! Yes, those billets! We’ll finish our swords and I’ll do some myself! Where’s my hammer gone?”
Trey could see Daiton’s forge busy at work while the master blacksmith scowled at the Tannousin clan. And the young man could tell that the forge was filled with experts, no matter what Nawal said. The forging of the swords went something like this as far as he could tell: the metal was first heated in one of the huge forges, which were filled with coals or charcoal or something, a blazing heat that was making him sweat even from where he was standing.
Once the metal was glowing with heat—not just red, but orange—the smith would take it over to the anvil with some tongs, where he would instantly begin striking the metal with a hammer. Or even just holding it while another man lifted a huge sledgehammer of a tool and struck it, flattening it out.
The process was meant to hammer the metal out, turn it from the lumps of steel into something resembling a sword. And Trey could see how hard it was. Even when it was hot, the metal was tough and a smith had to be careful to hit it hard enough to make the steel deform and move, but not so hard as to split the metal or bend it in the wrong direction. It would take weeks or maybe months for some of the apprentices to hammer the steel from a crucible cast into a sword, but Daiton could do the work faster. He showed Trey, turning his back on the Tannousin clan members as they continued to set up.
“Look at that! Without a Skill, you’d spent hours doing what I just did. That’s why my forge can produce so quickly. I can handle the first shaping of metal, and my apprentices can take care of the details. And if I need to, I can take a sword from the raw steel to the finished blade myself! What’s wrong with my method? My steel?”
“I don’t know, Master Daiton. Nawal’s uh, prickly. But she is good, I think. It’s just—”
A voice interrupted them. Trey turned. Nawal was standing behind him. She was still veiled, and her clothes still covered most of her body, but she’d rolled up her sleeves. Her bare arms had muscle and she held a hammer in one hand. Both Daiton and Trey stared at the odd sight. But Nawal’s voice was cold.
“Impure. Your steel is impure, and your forge only builds in more impurity, for all you clean away by striking it. We will show you true blacksmithing now. But we must have steel to do it. All we have brought is Naq-Alrama steel.”
“So. You’re ready with your little magic circle? Your forge isn’t even hot.”
Daiton pointed at the furnace, which was indeed flameless. Nawal stared at Trey.
“We have our own heat. Steel. Have you any of quality?”
“I have pucks and bars. All ready to be processed. Take your pick of my inferior steel and make me a blade better out of it!”
Daiton growled. Nawal looked at the bars of steel he’d indicated. She went over to some, grabbed one, discarded it, found another, tapped it against the table, listened, shook her head, and found another. It took her five minutes before she came back with eight bars of steel. Daiton’s eyes bulged.
“What are you doing with that? Do you plan on robbing me too?”
Nawal glared at Trey, who glared back. He was getting sick of being the supposed middleman!
“We steal nothing. But we need enough steel. This will do, I suppose. We must fold the steel.”
“What? It’s been folded! That’s good steel, right there! We hammered it out of the pucks!”
Nawal gave Daiton a scornful glance before she caught herself.
“You hammered it into shape. But you did not fold it. Did you bend the metal on itself? How many times did you fold it, then? Ten times? Twenty? Sixty?”
“Sixty—you’d get nothing left if you folded steel that many times!”
“Nothing but pure steel.”
Nawal turned. Trey thought Daiton would tear out the rest of his hair, then. He threw up his hands, red-faced, furious.
“Fine! Take the steel! But you’d better have a sword by sundown, or I will see you pay for all the steel you’ve wasted! Show me how fast you can make a sword!”
He snatched his hammer and strode away, his apprentices scattering in front of him. Trey found Daiton swearing and striking his hammer on the other side of the shop. The [Blacksmith] turned to him, glaring.
“They’ll never do it. A sword on top of folding all that metal? Never. That girl understands something of the craft, but she’s arrogant by far! I’ll make her tribe pay for all the metal they used, his Majesty’s orders or not.”
Trey feared this would come to Flos’ attention, but he didn’t know how to stop it. And part of him was curious to see if Nawal could back up her big words. He looked back at Nawal, who was laying the metal flat and speaking with Silmak, who was still busy with his magic circle.
“Uh, Master Daiton, what did you mean by folding steel?”
“Oh, that? She was talking about a way to purify the metal. That’s what gets me so angry. The girl, that Nawal’s right that our steel isn’t as pure as it can be. It’s pretty damn strong! But if you took it, heated it, and folded it in on itself, you’d hammer out more of the…eh, what do you call it?”
“Yes, that. All the crap in the metal you get from forging it. That’s what folding steel is. It’s an advanced trick not every [Blacksmith] knows about. I shouldn’t be surprised the damn Tannousin clan knows the way of it, though. And the concept’s simple. You fold the steel over. Hit it and hit it until it’s a solid block again. You’re always losing steel that way, you see? The heating and reheating while you strike it—it’s purifying the metal, leaving you with less, but better stuff. But doing it as many times as they claim you need to? They’d waste enough material to make nine swords just to make one! And the effort required!”
Trey glanced at Nawal, then at the sky. The sun was already setting.
“She’s got until sundown to forge the sword?”
“So she claims. That’s, what, eight hours at most? Impossible. Impossible to do. If she has a Skill, she could move the metal fast. But folding the steel and making a sword? In a day? I can make swords this quick because I have a team that takes shifts. By herself, with a Skill? She’d have to take at least two days, probably closer to four or five to do a proper job of it. And she’s not more than a girl. Blacksmithing is hard work on the body!”
Daiton raised his voice. Some of his apprentices were nodding. He turned, perhaps to shout that at the Tannousins. That was when Silmak, standing in the center of the circle he’d drawn, raised his hands up and then clapped them together.
The sound was soft. But the blast of air that burst from the circle was anything but. The sound was like a gunshot of noise and Trey shielded his face as grit and dust blew throughout the forge. Daiton coughed, swearing.
“What in the blazes was—”
He half-charged Silmak, who was standing in the large circle he’d drawn around the anvil and that stone block, and then staggered as he crossed the boundary of the circle. Trey saw him gasping wordlessly, then stumble out.
He jumped forwards, afraid the smith had had a stroke or heart attack. But as Trey passed into the magical circle he felt it too. He couldn’t breathe! Inside the circle there was no air! No oxygen, nothing. A void. Trey clawed at his throat, and then stumbled backwards. His lungs reflated with air and he gasped a shuddering breath.
“What was—what is—”
He coughed, and then saw Silmak step out of the circle. The spellcaster took a long gulp of air and then breathed out slowly.
“The circle is finished. The furnace will burn. My part is done. All that remains is to let the smith forge.”
He stepped away and Nawal moved forwards. She was holding the bars of metal she’d taken, and she placed them on the anvil before stepping out of the circle to grab her hammer. She took a deep breath before she entered and exited the circle. Trey stared.
Daiton was still gasping for breath. Silmak was concentrating on the stone box now, so the woman, Bezha, spoke. To Trey, again.
“Air burns the metal and adds impurity as you forge. Everyone knows that. That’s part of how the black metal, known as scaling, is produced.”
She pointed to the flakes of black metal lying on the ground. Bezha bent and picked some up to show Trey. It looked like burnt metal, which it was.
“This is the impurity in metal that smiths hammer out. Not just impurity though; the metal itself is always burning thanks to the heat and air. So it hardens.”
She nodded at Daiton’s forge. Trey turned and saw it was true.
As the metal in the forges grew red hot, it also developed that…scaling. Like black spots on the metal as it cooled. It flaked off as the apprentices struck the metal, falling to the ground like ash. Daiton scowled.
“We brush our metal clean of scaling if it gets too much, but it’s an inevitability. So your fancy trick prevents that. So what? You can’t breathe in there. And if there’s no air, there’s no fire!”
He pointed a trembling finger at the magic circle. Trey understood. So the circle was meant to prevent the metal being affected by the air? That was an ingenious solution. But Daiton was right. Basic chemistry meant that no oxygen meant no fire. But then he saw Silmak point at the stone box. And the runes inside began to glow and Trey felt something else blast outwards.
Heat. The stone box was filled with a blazing heat, so much that the air rippled and all the sweat on Trey and Daiton’s bodies dried in an instant. They recoiled and moved out of the way as Silmak, gloves on now, placed two blocks of stone in front of the box, sealing it off. Then the heat wasn’t so bad, but Trey could still feel it coming from the box, as hot, no, hotter than the furnaces.
Bezha smiled mockingly at Trey and Daiton.
“You seek heat, young foreigner? There it is. That is a rune furnace. Silmak’s power fuels it, as does all the magic of the Tannousin Clan. We provide the heat to melt metal.”
Daiton backed away from the box distrustfully. But now he was staring at Nawal. He’d said she had no heat to melt her metal, but now she did. And the furnace was inside the void of air.
“So the metal gets hot enough to move. And the anvil’s inside the circle, so that means you can heat it and shape it without air touching it. Without getting that uh, impurity. Scaling.”
Trey looked at Bezha. The woman nodded.
“And the rest will come out as the metal folds. See? It begins.”
Nawal had stepped into the circle again. She opened the rune furnace and put in one of the bars of metal. Trey caught another glimpse of the inside of the box. It was bright. There was no flame, but the rune inside was glowing white, and the small enclose was built so that the heat only had one way to flow out—and as Nawal placed a brick in front of it, all the openings were sealed.
Daiton shook his head as Nawal stepped outside again and took another deep breath.
“I suppose that’s one way of doing it. But she still can’t breathe. Are you telling me she’ll be taking that thing out and pounding on it without taking so much as a breath? In that clothing? In that heat?”
Bezha looked at Trey and Daiton. They both stared at her. Nawal was standing outside the circle, breathing deeply and heavily. Daiton stared at her.
“Madness. Unless she’s got a hammer long enough to let her work outside of that circle, she’ll never do it. And I’ve spent long enough staring at cheap tricks! Where’s my sword blank?”
He stomped past Trey to his side of the forge and snatched up his hammer. Trey saw him take out an unfinished sword, a long bar of metal, and begin hammering hard on it. The metal moved at once and Trey watched as Daiton narrowed one side, forming a handle of sorts. But then he turned back because Nawal had reentered the circle.
The bar of metal glowed as she took out. The veiled young woman made no sound as she walked back to the anvil, the glowing metal in hand. Her hammer was bright. Polished. And Trey saw the ground, the tongs, even the anvil’s surface itself had been cleaned.
The metal was placed on the surface of the anvil. Nawal raised her hammer. And she brought it down. Her lips were closed. And she wasn’t breathing. But the first strike of her hammer made the anvil and metal ring. It was a simple strike, but the second fell as soon as the hammer rose. And the third hit the metal. Again. Faster. Faster.
The sound was the first that had come from Nawal’s side of the forge. In fact, Trey realized she’s stopped speaking after the circle had been drawn. He stared at her.
Nawal’s eyes were focused on the bright metal beneath her. Her hammer rose and fell. One strike per second. And then two. Heavy blows; Trey could see the weight of each strike make the metal want to jump, but her other hand held the metal still. Nawal kept striking the metal. And Trey realized. She was in the circle. She wasn’t breathing.
“Dead gods. Is that girl actually doing it?”
Daiton had looked up. He was staring at Nawal. She was still there, hammering on the metal. For five seconds. Ten. Then twenty. Forty. Trey counted. On the forty fourth second, Nawal moved. She let go of the cooling metal and walked out of the circle. He heard a sharp intake of breath. Nawal walked around the edge of the magic circle once, breathing slowly, deeply. Then she took a breath as she entered the circle. And she seized both the tongs and hammer and pounded on the metal.
This time she didn’t last the entire time. But that was because the metal had turned from yellow to orange to a cherry red. Before it cooled, Nawal had strode back towards the rune forge and returned the metal to the container. Then she walked back to the anvil. And swept it with a cloth. A miniscule amount of scaling fell to the ground. Nawal did the same to her hammer, cleaning it of soot. And then she stepped out the circle. She walked it once, and then returned to the center.
The metal was hot. Nawal took it back out. And her hammer struck the metal. Once, twice, three times. So fast that Trey saw her arm blur as the hammer she held rose and fell. Again and again. And she did not breathe.
Ten seconds. Twenty. Thirty. Forty. Forty one. Forty two. Forty three. Forty four—and Nawal walked towards the forge. She replaced the metal to heat and walked outside of the circle. She breathed then, a pained gasp for air. This time her cycle around the circle was slower. But she’d timed it so that when she returned, the metal was ready to be struck again. And she took up the hammer and worked. In a void, without a sound.
Trey had forgotten there was anyone else in the forge. He only turned his head when he heard one of the apprentices utter a word. Daiton’s face was frozen with shock. The old [Smith] stared as Nawal walked out of the circle and took another precious breath of air. He looked away as if tearing himself from the sight and met Trey’s eyes.
“She’s going to burn out. That kind of pace? Without taking a breath?”
But he said nothing of her hammer work. Because there was nothing to say. Nawal struck the metal as fast—no, faster than he did. Like a machine, each blow on the center. And the metal moved as quickly for her as it did for him. As she’d said, she was folding the first bar of steel. Folding and folding it again, producing the black scaling, the impurity which she swept out of the circle.
“She can’t do that for more than a few more tries. Surely. A smith needs air! That girl will hurt herself! You—do you let her work like this all the time?”
Daiton rounded on Bezha. The woman was watching Nawal. All the Tannousin clan were. Some were sitting, others standing. But their eyes were on Nawal as she slowly made a circuit of the magical circle and stepped back in. Metal rang.
“She has a Skill. More importantly, the Tannousin smiths are trained to hold their breaths at a young age. If they do not gain this Skill among others, they are not meant to be smiths. This is a pattern Nawali has learned since she could hold a hammer. Look. She has the pattern set now.”
Bezha replied calmly to Trey. She pointed. And Trey saw Bezha was right. Nawal was tracing a pattern in the ground. And he saw how each step, each phase was predetermined.
Hammer the metal for exactly forty four seconds. Return it to the runic box to heat. Step outside the circle and breathe. Return to the circle, wipe her hammer and anvil once, reclaim the metal. Hammer it again, return to the furnace. Breathe.
It was a pattern. And Nawal kept to it, though she had to work without air. Sweat was already running down her forehead, dripping down her veil.
They were thick. And that veil couldn’t have helped either. Trey looked around. Bezha’s eyes were steady.
“That is how she must dress.”
“In the forge? But it’s so hot. And the air—can’t she take a break?”
“When she is done, she will rest. Now she forges. This is a competition, is it not? Where is Smith Daiton’s sword?”
Bezha looked at Daiton. The [Blacksmith] looked down and realized his metal had gone cold. He cursed, shoving it back in the furnace.
“That girl’s still folding the steel. This isn’t even the first step if she wants to use all eight bars and make a sword! I’m halfway done—I just have to beat out the shape. This is no fair match.”
But he’d lost some of his confidence in saying it. Bezha just turned her attention back to Nawal. And the girl traced the time in her slow steps. She took the metal, already reduced, out of the runic furnace. Trey saw her take the second bar of metal and place it in the furnace. Nawal began to hammer the first one, lengthening it, turning it into a flat bar of metal. The first of many she’d turn into a solid piece. Into a sword.
Her hammer flashed. She worked in silence, without air. And then she began to speed up.
This is how Bealt made a horseshoe. He took a bar of metal, heated it in his furnace until it was bright yellow, and then took it to his anvil. There he placed it against the round horn of the anvil and raised his hammer.
One, two, three! Bealt’s hammer flashed down and the metal rang. He hammered a bow into the horseshoes. Then, he flipped it and used the round horn of the anvil to bend the rest of the horseshoe into shape.
“So that’s what that pointy thing is for!”
Erin laughed in delight. The Gnoll [Farrier] grinned. From the straight bar of metal he’d made a ‘U’ shape, almost a horseshoe already! He grinned, and Erin thought he would continue hammering. But the metal was already red, cooling so quickly she couldn’t’ believe it. So Bealt placed it flat on the hammer and grabbed the odd spike.
“What’s that for?”
“Fullering. That’s what it’s called, Miss. Making holes in the horseshoe, so it can be nailed to the hoof. See the little groove? It’s so the nail heads don’t stick out when hammered in. See? Watch.”
Bealt placed the spike so its narrow tip was on top of the horseshoe’s center. Then he gave it a few powerful blows. Erin saw he’d punched a hole through the metal.
“Oh! I get it!”
So that was how you made holes in a horseshoe? Bealt made two more before the metal had cooled even further. He lifted it.
“Too cold to work. I’d stress the metal. So in to the furnace it goes. See?”
He tossed the horseshoe back in, rearranging it so the burning charcoal heated the horseshoe evenly. Erin nodded.
“I get it. But you have to be quick, don’t you?”
Bealt flashed her a pleased grin.
“Ah, well, it depends on the metal. Some things cool quicker than others, but yes! Speed is a virtue, Miss Solstice! Sure, you can take your sweet time, but that’s for delicate stuff. Not [Farrier]’s work! If a horse has thrown a shoe on the road or in a race and the [Messenger] needs to be gone or the [Farmer] at work by sunrise, the [Farrier] must be done!”
He’d raised his voice again. Erin could tell both Pelt and Maughin were listening. They could hardly have missed how she was sitting in Bealt’s forge, listening to him talk about his craft. And there was something impressive in how fast the [Farrier] made his horseshoe.
It took him two heating in the forge, and the second one was only to pound the rest of the horseshoe into shape. Erin watched as the [Farrier] took the spike and hammered more holes along the horseshoe’s rim as it cooled.
“And…done! A horseshoe, like many you’ve seen no doubt. If you check a shod horse any part of the world, this is what you’ll see. Nothing to it.”
Bealt presented the horseshoe to Erin after it had cooled. She ran her fingers across the still-warm metal, marveling at how fast he’d worked. She stared at the bar of metal he’d used and shook her head.
“Just like that! It’s amazing!”
“You’re too kind. But as I said, that’s [Farrier] work for you. Proper speed, proper quality. I can have your knife done, although it won’t be this quick. Horseshoes are simple.”
“But you make it look so…what level are you? Really high? I’d never be able to get the rod-thing to bend like that! This is so cool!”
Erin was genuinely excited. There was something about watching a piece of metal bend like that with only a hammer to shape it that no hydraulic press could match. But she must have raised her voice a bit too loudly, because a loud snort came from the forge next to them.
“That’s enough to make a Human excited? I suppose you’ve never seen a master working, then, brat.”
Pelt glared over the top of his anvil at Erin and Bealt. The Gnoll raised his eyebrows, but Erin stuck her tongue out at Pelt.
“Bleh. Big talk for a guy who can’t finish his metal-thing.”
She pointed at the piece of metal Pelt was working on. The Dwarf’s eye twitched. He picked up the metal and tossed it onto the ground. His apprentice scrambled after it, but Pelt snatched up a bar of metal like the one Bealt had used. He inspected it for a moment, then looked at Erin with a sneer in his face and voice.
“You call that expert work? You can make a horseshoe in a single heat. Watch.”
So saying, he stuck the metal in the furnace. There were a few minutes of awkward staring in which Erin folded her arms and Bealt, chuckling heated up another piece of metal himself. But then Pelt’s metal was hot. He pulled it out and called to Erin.
He placed it on the anvil as Erin rolled her eyes. Pelt raised his hammer, angled the metal to make the bend like Bealt had done. And his hammer moved. Erin saw it strike once, twice, and suddenly the metal was bent into a U-shape!
The Dwarf flipped it around the horn of the anvil and his hammer blurred. Strike, strike, strike! The clanging of metal was a quick melody of beats, over in a second. He held up a horseshoe, the twin of the one that the [Farrier] had just made, and held out a palm.
His Drake apprentice scrambled to get it to him. Pelt angled the spike and drove in the holes into the horseshoe with a single blow each time. It was still glowing red, still cooling when he held up the horseshoe.
Erin gaped. It was a proper jaw-drop. Pelt had done it! In half the time it had taken Bealt! The [Farrier] looked up from his second horseshoe and stared at the horseshoe the Dwarf had made as he placed it on his anvil. He straightened and called out to Pelt.
“Fancy. And fancy-quick, sir. But can you do that twice? I’ve sixty horseshoes to make, and I dare say that was a skillful trick you pulled off, but can you swear you’ll only heat once when doing work like this? My horseshoes always fit, with no mistakes to their curve.”
He gestured to his first horseshoe. And now Erin saw that Maughin was looking over, again obviously eavesdropping with his detached head. And some of the other smiths behind Bealt were listening as he called out to Pelt.
“A [Farrier] can take one of my shoes and fit it to any horse’s hooves wherever they may be. And I do that work in two heats. I could do it in one, but then mine might not be perfect. Would you wager you could cast thirty shoes in one heat and have them all come out perfect?”
Pelt had a sneer that could out sneer even Pisces. The Dwarf folded his arms.
“On my hammer, I could make you a hundred horseshoes and not one would be different from the other! Don’t mistake me, boy. I’ve made more horseshoes than you’ve dreamed of. I could make them in my sleep. If you want to test that, buy me drinks for the night and I’ll forge you thirty horseshoes as perfect as you like.”
Erin glanced at Bealt. The Gnoll smith was still for a second. Then he grinned, that wide, slightly scary Gnoll smile with teeth. It didn’t always mean they were happy to see you.
“Drinks, then. My horseshoes made in two heats each, yours the one. Thirty horseshoes apiece and if either Gnoll or Dwarf slips up, they pay for the other’s night. And if you can make thirty perfect, I’ll pay your drinks until you stop.”
Erin held her breath, but Pelt spat on the ground.
He reached for his hammer, but a rumbling voice interrupted him. Maughin walked out of his forge, huge hammer in hand, fitting his head on his shoulders. He stared at both Pelt and Bealt with a challenge in his eyes.
“Make it twenty each. Twenty perfect, and the fastest done is the winner if no one else errs.”
Bealt glanced up and Pelt turned his head.
“You think you can keep up, Maughin?”
“I wouldn’t offer to pay if I wasn’t sure. And the winner drinks in Tails and Scales. Is that enough of a wager for you, Pelt?”
The Dwarf licked his lips. His eyes lit up. Erin looked from smith to smith. Maughin’s apprentices crowded around behind him and some other smiths abandoned their work at their forges to watch.
Suddenly, it was a competition. Erin cleared her throat and the smiths broke off their staring contest to look at her.
“Uh, well, I suppose if we’re doing this, its twenty horseshoes? And you’ve all got your own forges? So…ready, set, go?”
Instantly, the three broke up. Bealt swung himself back to his ready forge and tossed another piece of metal into the furnace, discarding his half-finished horseshoe for later. Maughin hurried over to his furnaces as his apprentices cleared the space of their work, grabbing metal for him to use. Pelt tore back into his forge, shouting at his Drake apprentice for his metal. And Erin watched.
What skill, what speed! Okay, it was just horseshoes, but it was still fascinating to watch! Erin saw other smiths and apprentices gather, and a few of the Street Runners and other people walking on the ninth floor gathered to see as well. Because even if they were just horseshoes, it was fascinating to see a master make them.
And how they did it! Maughin was the first Erin focused on. The giant Dullahan was as strong as he looked. He only needed to hit a piece of metal once to make it bend. In fact, he was so strong that Erin saw he had to pace himself not to wreck the shape of the horseshoe. He had to focus to get the right bend in place, let alone angle the fuller to poke the holes in the horseshoes. But the Dullahan was crafty and had a strategy to make up for his lack of speed.
He was using all the forges in his shop! Maughin had three in the space he’d rented, and he walked from one to the other. The instant one of his horseshoes was at the right temperature he took it out, hammered it, and as it cooled, stuck it back into the forge to be heated again. But was that enough?
Erin looked at Bealt and saw the [Farrier]’s hammer flashing. He had a fast rhythm to all his motions, and while he had only one forge, he knew how to make a horseshoe with the most economical of movements. True to his word, he only needed two heats each time. And somehow, his metal was heating up faster than Pelt or Maughin’s! The Gnoll laughed as he took another orange-yellow piece of metal out of the furnace.
“A [Farrier] must work quick! And the quicker the metal heats, the quicker it can be struck! Some smiths have Skills to move their metal faster, or make the end result tougher! But the [Farrier] must be done soonest!”
His hammer sang on the anvil as Maughin labored to catch up. Bealt was skillful and fast as he claimed. But it was Pelt who was the master of the three. Erin saw that, and so did the audience. You could just see it. The Dwarf used one forge, and his metal didn’t heat as fast, but when he took it out, his hammer flew and the horseshoe was done before the metal was red.
Not even Bealt could match that speed, or indeed the flawless precision by which the Dwarf fullered the holes in the horseshoes each time. And yet, he was still slower, and not just because of his forge.
The Dwarf had the bars of steel ready to be turned into horseshoes lined up next to his anvil. His apprentice would hand him each one, ready to be heated up. But before the Dwarf put them in the furnace he’d lift each bar of steel up, stare at it. Tap it against the anvil and listen to the sound it made. Each time, he’d inspect the bar of metal he was given, as meticulous as could be, despite the competition.
That struck Erin as odd, because the precious seconds or even minutes it cost Pelt to inspect each bar of steel was giving Bealt a chance to move past him. A Drake [Smith] shook his head as he stared at the Dwarf inspecting his sixteenth horseshoe as his apprentice hopped from one foot to another, practically begging him to put it in the furnace. Bealt was on his seventeenth shoe, and Maughin his fourteenth and fifteenth simultaneously.
“That’s Pelt for you. Miserable drunk he might be, but he won’t accept any imperfection in his metal. Pallass churns out the steel some of the smiths buy, but he refuses to use it. Forges his own steel himself out of iron with his apprentice; and even then he’ll discard anything that has impurity. Not that I know how you’d be able to tell by just looking.”
“Maybe it’s a Skill?”
Erin suggested. The Drake shrugged.
“It’s probably a Dwarf thing. A Skill should be faster, shouldn’t it? Either way, he’s going to lose if he doesn’t hurry up.”
And he was right. Pelt was on the eighteenth horseshoe when Bealt threw down his hammer and raised his paws in the air. There was a groan from Maughin’s apprentices and Pelt just scowled, but both smiths kept working. After all, they had promised to make twenty perfect horseshoes each.
And then they were done. All three collected their twenty shoes and placed them on their anvils, Pelt’s in a mess, Bealt and Maughin’s neat and stacked. And somehow, it fell to Erin to be the judge.
“Oh wow. Yep. Those are identical. Ahem. Looks like good…steel? These are made of steel, right? Nice sound they make. I bet if I was a horse I’d love these on my feet. Wait. You hammer these in with nails, right? Maybe not.”
Erin wandered from anvil to anvil, lamely inspecting the horseshoes in front of the audience. The thing was…the thing was…they were identical. Each one. Even Pelt’s, when she organized them. She could even see through the holes on Pelt’s when she stacked them all together, he’d hammered in the holes that perfectly. And Maughin and Bealt’s, if not that flawless, were too close for anyone to object to.
Erin came to a stop in front of the three waiting smiths. Pelt was scowling and Maughin looked disappointed. Bealt was smiling. Erin cleared her throat awkwardly.
“Well, these look really good. So…I guess Bealt wins?”
There was a rippled through the audience. No one looked happy, although that had been the nature of the bet. Pelt kicked over his stack of horseshoes, growling.
“So the damn Gnoll can heat his horseshoes faster. So what? Mine are flawless! Not a hole out of place! Can he make anything else better, or is shaping a bar of metal all he can do?”
“I can do better. But no one challenged me to more. And I think I’ve proved a [Farrier]’s worth.”
Bealt smiled as he looked at the other two. Maughin frowned.
“Speed at least. But if I this was a matter of decoration, or of a more complex shape—”
“Sour grapes, Smith Maughin. Or do you have another task in mind?”
“I wouldn’t shy away from another wager. Say, drinks and food?”
“But what would we forge?”
Pelt growled at the two. Bealt blinked. He looked at Erin.
“Well…I do have one more promise to fulfill. A certain knife for Miss Solstice. Which the two of you were too busy for, weren’t you?”
He looked at Pelt and Maughin. The two smiths turned to Erin. She grinned weakly.
“Oh, that? Well, I need a knife, sure. But is that really—”
“That settles it! A knife, and not just made fast, but made well! We’ll test them and the sharpest, the strongest—”
“And the most beautiful.”
“Yes, all those win! Let the [Innkeeper] judge! Not just us three! Any [Smith] that wins we’ll pay for as the master of blades! Who’ll join?”
Bealt turned. Half the smiths shouted agreement and strode to their forges.
“Wow. A competition? Er—this is like one of those game shows. Only, with knives instead of food. Is there something like that? Iron Blacksmith? Um—”
Erin looked around. The smiths weren’t listening. Maughin was already calling for his best steel billet. Pelt grunted as he hurried over to his forge, hunting for his best metal. And Bealt was likewise pulling steel billets out, as he sketched a knife that looked more like a hunting weapon on a piece of parchment with charcoal. He caught Erin’s eye as she approached.
“Sorry for making this a huge thing.”
“Ah, what of it? This is fun!”
The [Farrier] grinned at Erin’s apprehensive face. He laughed as he turned up his furnace, then nodded at Pelt.
“It may end with me paying for someone else’s food, but this is more fun than I’ve had all week! And as for Pelt—I’ve never seen that Dwarf participate in any competition. Someone’s riled him up, and the other smiths for that matter. And me. And it occurs to me you had something to do with that, Miss Solstice.”
He stared at Erin. The young woman gave him a wide-eyed look.
“Me? But I mean, I guess…”
She looked doubtful. Bealt shook his head.
“You have a way about you. Intentional or not. I wonder if half the stories I hear from my kin in Liscor are true.”
He bent over his parchment, chuckling, and heard a light chuckle in return. The young woman sat next to him.
“Well, some of them are. And I’ll say sorry again. But I really wanted to see how good Pelt was. And everyone likes a good competition, don’t they?”
Bealt glanced up sharply. He saw Erin smiling at him, and the wide-eyed look in her eyes was gone. His jaw fell open and she gave him a wink.
“What can I say? It’s a knack. Better get to work! I like the curvy thing on that knife. Ooh, but I’m a judge aren’t I? Impartiality! Hey, you know, this would be great if I had something to sell for the audience…”
The forge sang with sound. It was a competition between sounds. Between ways of life. On one side, Daiton was forging, loudly swearing, ordering his apprentices about, talking as he waited for his metal to heat. On the other side, Nawal existed in a world of silence. The only sound was the ringing of her hammer, and then the slow tracing of her footsteps around the magic circle.
It was a contest, although Trey thought the outcome rested on Nawal, not Daiton. The [Blacksmith] had forged a sword, but it had been done out of an existing piece of metal already worked on for days. He held up a sword, and Trey had to admit, it looked quite good. Daiton had smoothed the hammer marks in the metal, and given it an edge that only needed a grindstone to make sharper. It was a traditional longsword, and now he held it up for his audience to see.
His apprentices looked properly impressed, if accustomed to the sight. The Tannousin clan watched silently. Daiton showed the sword to Trey, who was the only one who showed any real interest in the blade. He wiped sweat from his brow and nodded to the furnace.
“I’m done. Time to quench it.”
That was the process Trey had yet to see. He watched as Daiton heated the blade in the forge again, like he would do before hammering on it. But this time he inserted the sword hilt-first. One of the apprentices explained why to Trey as Daiton gently pulled the sword back and forth, heating the handle and lower part of the blade until it was white-hot.
“The tang—that’s the hilt part without the handle, Sir Trey—that heats first. You can get it nice and hot, but the edge you heat last. Master Daiton’s taking care with the sword. Overheat the delicate edge and you could ruin the hardness of the edge.”
“And when it’s all hot? What does he do, toss it into one of the barrels?”
Trey had seen the barrels of liquid. He assumed they were water, but the apprentice looked shocked at the idea.
“Oh no! For a sword? The water would make the edge far too brittle! Master Daiton will put it in oil. And he won’t keep it in there. If he dropped it, the sword might break at the bottom. See?”
He pointed. Daiton had lifted the glowing blade. He marched over to the barrel and without hesitation stuck the sword into the deep barrel. There was a gout of flame, but Daiton was wearing gloves. He held the blade in the oil, then pulled it out. Trey saw the [Smith] hold the sword up to eye-level and inspect the length of the blade. Then Daiton’s face twisted into a grimace. He lowered the sword with a look of disgust and grabbed a file.
A metal file. Daiton rubbed it against the edge of the longsword, then hurled the file to the ground with a curse. The apprentice and Trey watched as he carried to back to the furnace and plunged it back in. Then he turned and almost shamefaced, addressed the forge.
“I misjudged the heat. It’s too soft and there’s a warp. I’ll have to requench it.”
The other smiths sighed, but they didn’t look too upset. Trey didn’t understand what had happened, so asked the helpful apprentice again what had gone wrong. The apprentice pointed to reheating blade again as Daiton grumbled about having to straighten the metal.
“The heat is crucial. When you quench a blade—and you can do it many ways, sir, and the liquid matters—it must be at the right temperature. Master Daiton was quenching his blade in oil, but the quench went wrong for whatever reason and the blade isn’t hard. The file bites into the edge, where it should glide across if it were properly heated.”
“So it was too weak. And the warp?”
“It means it’s not straight.”
Both Trey and the apprentice jumped. Hesseif had appeared behind him. The huge man was a proper [Warrior], but he had an air of familiarity as he nodded to the blade Daiton was hammering on.
“Quenching a blade more than once makes it weaker. Your master, he left the blade in the oil too long. He should have pulled it out sooner; it cooled too much. As for the warp—he can straighten it, of course.”
Trey looked at the apprentice. The young man tried to glare up at Hesseif, but for all his muscles, Hesseif was far bigger. And scarier.
“Oh yes. Daiton’s shown us any number of ways to straighten a blade—before or after quenching. It’s not an exact thing, Sir Trey. Anything can go wrong.”
That wasn’t an opinion the Tannousin clan seemed to share, though. They watched at Daiton requenched the blade—this time he pulled it out of the oil and announced it was perfect. But their expressions told Trey it was anything but. Still, as Daiton handed the sword to an apprentice to be finished, Trey had to admit it looked like a good sword. But Nawal was trying to make a great one.
The Tannousin caravan was still waiting. They were watching Nawal as she kept straightening her metal. She was so far behind Daiton—but she’d folded her metal, all eight bars of it, into a single chunk of metal. The ground outside the circle was littered with the slag, the scaling, the impurity she’d hammered out of the metal. Now the bar she held glowed as she hit it again and again. And it was growing longer with each cycle she walked!
“Sir Trey, look. Master Daiton’s blade is nearly finished.”
The apprentice urged Trey over. He stared at the blackened exterior of the blade. It was the right shape, but the metal was all sooty. The exterior needed to be ground away, and the quenching wasn’t the entire process either as the apprentice explained.
“Tempering comes after. You heat the blade—not as hot as the quench—and put it in oil. You do that again and again to get the exact hardness of the metal you need.”
“So it’s not done?”
“No, Sir Trey. But the quench was the biggest hurdle. See the blade now? It’s straight and true. No more warp. No cracking on the edge, though. Ready for grinding.”
“A good sword.”
Trey said it automatically. But his eyes went to Hesseif and the big man shook his head. Twice quenched. And the steel wasn’t perfect. Trey was far from an expert, but he was getting a sense of the Tannousin clan’s objections.
So was Daiton. He scowled as he stared at Hesseif and Trey. His eyes slid to Nawal and the metal she was working on and he snapped at another journeyman smith.
“Another sword! Hand me another—I’ll make this one excellent. Where’s the one Makel was working on? Give it here!”
He grabbed another unfinished sword. His hammer fell, and hers, making the metal ring. This time Daiton beat the metal in a furious rhythm, elongating the sword, pausing, his hammer tapping the edges lightly, giving it an edge, smoothing the metal. But his was one sound in the forge. And when Nawal began her hammering again, her sound joined him.
Two rhythms. The other smiths worked as well, hammering, sweating, aiming for the place where the metal should be. Trying to coax steel to move. That was the endless beat of the forge, the work of smiths as their hammers rose and fell. Ceaseless, until they paused to let the metal heat. And then the hammers fell again and again.
The ninth floor of Pallass rang with sound. Erin had heard it before when she’d stepped off the elevator. But now the sound filled her ears. It was hypnotic.
Dozens of sweating Drakes, Dullahan, and a few Gnolls, almost all male, some even bare-chested (although that just meant scales or fur or armor, so did it really count?) due to the intense heat, labored in their forges. Each one forging a blade. A knife. For her. But really for them.
Each one had a different design in mind. But each followed the same pattern. Heat and strike. Move their metal into shape. With nothing but brawn and sweat and the tools they had.
A crowd watched the impromptu competition. Younger smiths too unsure of their skills to compete, and onlookers who admired the skill of those who shaped metal. Among them was a huge Drake [Mage] with bulging muscles of his own who’d taken his apprentices to watch and observe.
Grimalkin was nodding, looking extremely satisfied as he watched the display. A few teenage girl Drakes and Gnolls were eying the male blacksmiths and giggling. But most of the audience was actually older, and had come, like Erin, to see experts at work.
It was amazing. Each smith was pounding away at the metal. Maughin’s huge hammer fell, like a miniature clap of thunder each time, pounding his billet of steel flat with ease. Across from him, Bealt was curving his blade, his hammer moving almost too fast to see.
But Erin’s eyes were on Pelt. The Dwarf hadn’t sprung into action like the other smiths right away. They had pieces of metal ready to turn into knives and but for the shaping, they were nearly done. But he’d taken a different tack. He’d grabbed a long, wide piece of iron that was too big for anything but some kind of cleaver and he was folding both sides up. Erin had to ask one of the [Smiths] watching was he was doing.
“He’s not going to use that, is he?”
She pointed at the wedge the Dwarf was making. One of the Drakes shook his head.
“He shouldn’t. That’s iron, not steel. But wait…he’s got some steel right there. Oh! He must be making the blade out of both metals!”
He looked excited. Erin looked blank.
“What? You mean, like one half iron, the other half steel? Why?”
“No, no, the edge will be all steel. But the rest—what’s the right way to describe this? He’s putting the metal he intends to make into an edge between two softer metals. That way, the spine of the blade is more flexible while the edge is sharp.”
Erin stared at the wedge. Then her eyes widened as she saw Pelt place the bar of shiny steel between the iron and hammer it shut.
“Oh, like a sandwich!”
The Drake glanced at her. But Erin understood now. The Dwarf was making a sandwich of iron with the steel in the center. Or…was a taco the better way of looking at it? Yes, an iron-and-steel taco. He inserted the length of steel between the wrapper of the red-hot metal, and sealed it all up with his hammer. Then he stuck it back in the furnace.
“Is that a good way of making a knife?”
“Well, it means it’s not one solid thing, you see? It can make a blade better, certainly. Give it flexibility and strength. I’ll say this—it’s harder to do than just plain steel. But look at the other smiths! Some are already nearing completion!”
He pointed. And Erin saw it was true. A few smiths had Skills that could move metal very quickly and their knives had appeared out of their steel very quickly. But the two to watch, that was, Maughin and Bealt, were both still beginning their work.
Both smiths still hammering away at their billets. That was the word, wasn’t it? Both men, well Gnoll and Dullahan, were working fast. But there was a difference between the two’s styles. Maughin was a lot slower than Bealt. The Gnoll hit twice, or even three times for every stroke of Maughin’s hammer.
But the Dullahan made up for his slower speed with his strength. Every time he hit the metal, Erin could see and practically feel the impact. Meanwhile, Bealt was hitting as hard as he could, but both were still working hard to lengthen their billets into proper knives.
“Good work. Solid. If they quench well, they’ll have a knife in no time. You’ll judge them on the speed at which they finished, won’t you? And the cutting edge?”
The Drake was bouncing on his feet, tail wagging excitedly. Erin eyed him.
“Sure…I’ll do that. Uh, I might need to write down who went first. And uh, maybe get some fish to slice. What else do you cut with knives? Apples?”
She was looking around, wondering if she’d gone too far with her competition. Then she noticed Pelt. He was standing in front of the furnace, staring into it. The [Smiths] to his left and right were all hammering on their knives, shouting at each other, laughing as they waited to reheat their metal. But Pelt was still.
So still. Like a statue, just watching his metal heating up. Erin’s gaze swung back to him and she felt premonition stir the hairs on the back of her neck. She saw Pelt reached out with his tongs and grab the metal. The little sandwich of metal was glowing with heat. And he placed it on his anvil and grabbed his hammer. And every part of Erin screamed at her.
Look at him. See? He’s lost his scowl. Look at his eyes. Look at his expression. Peaceful. And see his hammer rise. See him open his mouth. See him strike!
And he did. And the first sound was like a bell ringing. The second followed it, so fast Erin blinked and missed it. Pelt’s hammer rose over his head and he brought it down, in an arc and struck the metal. Twice. Three times. And then Erin lost count.
At first no one noticed. But then the sound chimed again, and again. Not just a rhythm, but a wild racing metal heartbeat. The smiths around Pelt looked up. And they stared.
A flash of metal. A blurring arm. That was all Erin could see. Her eyes couldn’t track Pelt’s hammer, but she saw the metal changing on the anvil in real-time. Maughin and Bealt, wrapped up in their work, didn’t notice at first. Then they glanced up at the strange sound and stared.
Pelt held the metal as still as water on the lake. But his hammer fell a dozen times per second, so fast Erin saw afterimages. Again and again, faster than Bealt, so hard Erin thought the anvil might crack! The sound the Dwarf’s hammer made drowned out all the others.
The other sounds stopped. The smiths halted in their work. Men and women, Drakes, Gnolls, Dullahans. They’d all stopped to stare at him. Pelt’s hammer was the only sound in the world. And it drowned out everything. He was lost in the center of the blur of his arm and body, moving like the only real person in a slow world.
Pelt’s mouth was open. Erin could see him roaring, but his words were lost in the rush of sound. And then it stopped.
The Dwarf raised the metal and Erin saw it was cooling. He put it in the furnace and placed bricks in front of it, containing the heat. There he waited, his back to the others. No one moved. They watched as Pelt stared into the blinding flames, staring at his metal until it was just the right temperature. Then he tore it out and began hammering again.
One heat. And then two. Each time the metal went into the furnace, it looked different. First it was just a bar of two metals joined together. Then it was longer, a curve appearing near the point, a handle clearly defined. The third time the knife went in, it looked…close to done.
The Drake at Erin’s side breathed out slowly. Erin had forgotten and inhaled a breath of painful air. She stared at Pelt as, this time he took the knife out and grabbed something from a pot. He covered the back edge of the knife with it, leaving the edge untouched.
“What’s he doing now?”
“He’s going to quench it. But that stuff—clay? He’s only quenching the edge, then. See?”
Pelt was holding the knife over a barrel of oil. And the rest of his knife was indeed covered with a smooth coat of clay. Only the edge was visible, glowing still. The Dwarf didn’t hesitate. He plunged the knife into the oil, lifting it as flames shot up from the oil. Erin gasped, but Pelt didn’t waver, though he wore no gloves.
Once, twice, three times. The knife cooled with each dip into the oil. And when it came out—clay fell away, what hadn’t been burned off. Pelt raised the knife, and it was done. The Drake standing next to Erin sighed with longing and she looked at him. A [Smith]. And then she looked at Pelt and realized she was staring at a master.
The Dwarf stared at his knife as it cooled. The other [Smiths] had stopped their work at their forges, put down their hammers to see. It was a finished knife. In…an hour? No, less. Erin could see it.
Pelt held it up as his apprentice dragged something over. A grindstone. Of course! He just had to sharpen that edge, remove some of the chaff that coated the blade and it would be perfect. But suddenly Pelt’s expression wasn’t so calm. He was frowning at the blade. At one side of it, tilting his head back and forth. Erin slunk forwards and heard him muttering to himself. She caught one word as he turned to the grindstone.
The apprentice helped work the grinding wheel. Erin saw the Dwarf delicately put the blade’s edge to the wheel and sparks flew. They landed on his face, his beard, and his clothes, but he didn’t flinch. The blackened metal from the quench flew away and revealed a bright inner core. Around Erin the watching audience, smiths and apprentices and onlookers alike, sighed.
Maughin had abandoned his knife at his anvil. He walked forwards to stand with Erin, as if he were ashamed of the knife he had tried to forge. And why not? Pelt’s blade was a work of art. It was almost unfair how beautiful it was.
The knife’s back was straight, and curved slightly towards the point. The edge was similarly straight as a razor until it tapered off, but what was most striking was the wavy line running across the blade. It was like waves—the edge was brighter, while the metal of the back of the blade was darker. Erin was sure the line had come from where Pelt had applied the clay. A sharp edge and softer spine, two kinds of metal made into one.
Bealt stepped out to stare at it. A masterwork done in less than an hour. Erin didn’t have to be told that was an incredible feat. But Pelt’s expression had soured. The Dwarf’s contented look during the forging, his excitement, had given way to an ominous look. And Erin and the smiths sensed it.
One side of the knife became polished, perfect and beautiful. But there was…something wrong with the other side. And Pelt unearthed it after only a few seconds of grinding. Erin heard an oath, and the Dwarf jerked the blade back from the grindstone wheel. The Drake apprentice stopped spinning it and the other smiths crowded around to see what was wrong. Erin peeked over Pelt’s shoulder and saw it.
There. The slightest of cracks in the still-blackened outer shell. A fault in the pristine steel, right near the edge. The Dwarf dropped the blade with shaking fingers.
“A flaw in the metal. My metal.”
“Aw, but that’s noth—”
Erin froze as Pelt turned. His eyes were suddenly huge in his face. Maughin peered at the knife, shaking his head.
“A superficial crack. You can easily grind it away and have a perfect blade still.”
“No, no. It’s there. Impurity in the metal. The fire, the hammering had no issue. So it was a flaw in my steel. It must have crept in. And I didn’t notice. I was too busy thinking of the knife.”
“It’s the tiniest of flaws, Pelt. And you’ve won the competition by any reckoning. I haven’t the heart to finish my blade.”
Bealt objected, looking down with envy at the knife. But the Dwarf was shaking his head. he turned to Erin and she backed up. There was a wild light in Pelt’s eyes.
“An impurity. I didn’t see it. Didn’t think to check—forgot to check. I forgot to check.”
Pelt looked around, his gaze suddenly cornered. He lifted the knife, and then stared at the crack. With a shout, Pelt hurled the blade away. Erin saw his apprentice duck as the knife clanged across the ground.
“Pelt! It’s just—”
Maughin reached for the Dwarf, but the shorter smith tore away. He looked around at his audience and his face turned into a snarl.
“What are you looking at? Begone! I’m done! Done!”
He rammed into the crowd and ran past them, abandoning his apprentice and tools. Erin heard his running footfalls. And then silence.
“What was that? He overreacted!”
One of the Drakes [Smiths] exclaimed, a touch shaken, a bit angrily. Some of others agreed, the rest were shaking their heads. Erin looked up at Maughin and then at Bealt. Both had bleak looks.
“That wasn’t the first time this has happened, is it?”
“How could you detect an impurity so small? No—before that, look at this blade.”
Maughin spoke slowly. He walked forwards, past the Drake apprentice who was sitting back, woebegone. The Dullahan stared down at the knife. His voice was low when he spoke.
“I am a Level 35 [Armorer]. I’ve labored for over thirty years to reach my level of skill and experience in my craft. Some thought me gifted, and I believed that too when I left Baleros to impress another continent with my skill. But Dwarves, half-Elves, even some Lizardfolk will outlive me. Most Dullahans die before ever turning eighty.”
He bent, brushing dust off the knife and held it up. The Dullahan shook his head as he inspected it, and then brought it to the grindstone. He sheared off the excess metal, quietly, and lifted the blade. The crack was gone, and the metal shone on both sides. Maughin went on, still shaking his head as he held the small knife in his massive hands.
“But Pelt? How old is he? Over a hundred? How many decades of experience does he have? How many Skills? To think an outcast from his home could outperform us so easily. And yet he gave up, though this blade is near perfect. Why? We do not ask, but now I do. Why? What could bring him so low? And why did the world see fit to grant him such skills and we…”
The giant Dullahan’s voice turned rough. His fist closed over the knife as if to snap it, and his arm tensed. But then his face sagged and he gently opened his hand. He stared down at the beautiful knife, and gently handed it, tang first, to Erin. She looked at the blade and touched the cool metal softly. Maughin’s eyes were sad.
“What good is the purity of metal if the hammer that shapes it lacks heart?”
She had no answer. And part of Erin felt bad for egging on Pelt to begin with. She remembered the Dwarf’s face, that look of deepest regret and anger.
“Everyone has a story. Everyone has a past. Sometimes we can’t get past it. I…shouldn’t have bugged Pelt. I think he made a mistake and he’s still hurting.”
“Wisdom. I hear it spoken.”
The [Armorer] nodded heavily. He let Erin look at the knife for a second and then waved a hand.
“Take it to a [Sharpener]. Do you know Lorent? He spoke to me of you and he is one of the best. He can finish the knife; one of my apprentices can fit the handle if he cannot.”
The young woman looked up.
“You’re sure? But Pelt threw it away and I didn’t pay—”
“Take it, Erin Solstice. It would be a crime to waste that metal. And a better knife you will not have from Pallass’ forges, I promise you. If Pelt seeks the cost of the work, I’ll pay him myself. To see him working with his heart was worth the cost. Now, I have work to finish.”
He walked off. Erin clutched the knife, feeling the not-yet fully sharp edge biting into her palm. She stared around at the crowd, the smiths going back to their forges, and shook her head.
“And just when I thought Pallass would be relaxing. I guess this is something else for my to-do list. As for you? You’re coming with me, friend.”
She lifted the knife and began to walk away. It wasn’t how Erin would have preferred to end her day, for all she had a knife ready to be sharpened, practically free of charge. She wished it had ended differently, and wished she could hear that glorious sound again, and see the Dwarf’s face, lit up, and laughing. But the sound was faded. And though the hammering and roar of the furnaces began once again, it was a quiet sound.
But on another continent, the hammer still fell, and a girl with a veil screamed her purpose silently in the echoing forge.
How long had she worked? Trey had no notion. The hours had passed as he stood there, watching her. Sweat ran down her face. Her veil was wet, despite the heat. Her face was pale.
She couldn’t breathe. Not until she left the circle. But she kept returning to it. Again and again, even when Daiton had stopped his work. He had tried to continue, but his arms had tired. So had his apprentices. They had stopped, and now they watched with the rest.
Down the hammer fell. Down again and again. In a place without air. On a piece of metal without flaw. And it glowed in a forge without flame. But the product, the metal being shaped had something the others blades lacked.
The complacent. The inexperienced. The weak of heart. All fell away in time. But she kept going. She had less Skills, less experience than some. But her drive kept her standing. Her will let the hammer rise and fall.
She was spending less and less time in the circle. And her walking was slower. But she refused to let the metal overheat. She refused to stop. And as the sword emerged from the metal Nawal had folded, Trey saw the beauty of it. It was not hidden like the other swords; it was there, bared to see. A shining blade, heating and cooling on the anvil.
There was no scaling; the previous folding of the steel had burned the impurity away, and Nawal had swept the ground clean again and again. Between heats she’d even cleaned her hammer and anvil. Now the metal bar slowly extended, earning a point, a recurved spine and a long, cutting edge.
That was all Trey said as Nawal walked slowly around the circle. Her shoulders were slumped. She looked impossibly worn. But her clan refused to let anyone go near her. And Nawal herself had only stopped to drink water.
“She is nearly finished. The task was long. Longer than she would take normally since she purified the steel. But she is nearly done.”
Silmak stood with his arms folded. Sweat stood out on his brow despite the cooling air as the sun set. He had been maintaining both spells, and his vigil was taxing as Nawal’s work in its way. He pointed with a strained finger.
“Look. She heats the edge alone. This is the final time. The quenching. After this is it is done.”
“What if she gets it wrong? If the edge isn’t sharp?”
Silmak looked back at Trey and shook his head.
“She will only quench it once. If she fails, the sword is worthless. See how she heats only the edge? She can tell how much heat is in the blade. It must be perfect or else the spine will be too hot, the edge too cool.”
Trey’s voice trailed off. That was the Tannousin clan’s way, wasn’t it? Perfection or nothing. He imagined all the hours of work going to waste. And he prayed Nawal would do it correctly.
A group of men led by Hesseif dragged the barrel over. Into the circle where air wasn’t permitted. Not even here would air touch and corrupt the blade. Trey saw Nawal lift the bright edge as the rest of the blade cooled, dark or red. He thought she hesitated once. Then she turned and approached the barrel of oil.
There was no ceremony. Nawal thrust the sword into the oil and no smoke emerged. No bubbles rose; it was, after all, a vacuum. She stared there, gently shifting the sword, pulling it out of the oil, dipping it back in. And then the sword came out and Nawal turned. She stepped out of the circle and held the sword up. And she spoke, in a voice hoarse from hours of disuse.
“It is done.”
A sigh ran through the Tannousin clan. The smiths around Daiton stared. The sword Nawal held dripped with oil. But more than that. It gleamed.
There was no scaling, no soot or burnt metal. Nothing a traditional fire or quench would leave on the steel. And Nawal had hammered the metal so finely, with such precision that no marks existed on the smooth metal.
It was not perfect. There was no handle or hilt to the sword, just the bared tang. And Trey could see the edge wasn’t there yet. But the metal still looked beautiful. It had taken so little of…of anything, be it soot or that scaling on Daiton’s blades. It was just metal, gleaming after the oil bath.
“Who will sharpen it?”
Nawal looked around. She staggered and hands reached out. Bezha caught her. Another man took the blade, as careful as could be. A grindstone appeared, and smaller files were produced as the Tannousin clan members gathered around the blade. Silmak turned to Trey and the other watchers.
“Hers is to shape the metal. The rest of the clan performs other tasks, such as sharpening the edge, detailing it. Etching with acid. We will only sharpen today.”
He bowed slightly. Trey bowed back, not knowing what else to do. He heard a noise and looked sideways. Daiton was staring at the blade as it was slowly sharpened with exacting care. The [Blacksmith] spoke through numb lips.
“I—have not seen a [Smith] make a sword from a raw piece of steel in a day for years. Let alone…what level are you? Who taught you?”
He looked at Nawal. The girl was being held up by Bezha and another woman. She spat the veil out of her mouth as they offered her water and something to eat. But her eyes were no less fierce than they had been this morning. She looked Daiton in the eye.
“I am Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin. My father forged Naq-Alrama steel. That is my only claim, but he taught me all he knew, and if I lie, may my blood water the sands.”
The older smith met Nawal’s gaze. This time it was he who looked away, not her. He stared at Trey and his voice was lost.
“I have heard of the desert tribes and their famous smiths. But I thought there was little difference, even for magical steel. I thought…”
He said nothing more. He just looked at Nawal’s blade. And Trey felt bad for him. Nawal sat down as her tribe worked on the sword, passing it from person to person. From rough grinding of the edge to delicate work with smoother stones. The blade grew sharper with each person, until Trey was worried for the hands that ran across the edge. But the Tannousin clan was experienced and not one drop of blood touched the ground.
Trey didn’t know what to do next. Daiton was sitting in his forge, staring at the magical circle as Silmak slowly destroyed it with his foot. Everyone else was just staring at the blade or being silent. He looked at Nawal, and then saw something heading towards them.
From the palace. A tall figure strode towards them, followed by four other figures. Carrying parasols. Orthenon and four members of Parasol Stroll including Mirin and Ulyse walked towards the forge. The smiths, the Tannousin clan, and Trey all looked up as the King’s Stewards approached.
Orthenon asked no questions. Neither did he waste time on greetings. He looked down at the sword a young woman held with a piece of cloth.
“The sword. It is done?”
Everyone looked at Silmak. The [Shaman] bowed.
“Not yet, Steward Orthenon. It must still be sharpened thrice more.”
The Steward nodded.
“Perfect the edge, then. But do it quickly and without error. And the second it is finished, hand it to Mage Ulyse.”
He stood there, waiting, and the four [Mages] behind him folded their parasols and waited. Trey expected the Tannousin clan to be nervous, and they clearly were, but even that didn’t let them hurry their work. Fifteen minutes later, the blade was passed to Silmak. He hesitated, then handed it to Nawal. She took the blade and with both hands, offered it tang-first to the Steward.
“It lacks a handle, Lord Orthenon—”
Silmak cautioned the man. Orthenon shook his head.
“That does not matter at the moment. Ulyse. This blade. Will it do?”
The [Mage] sighed. He lifted a finger and the sword spun through the air, towards him. It paused in the air and he touched it, gently.
“Ah, this is a pure thing. Can you feel it, Mirin? It will hold an enchantment. But which one?”
“We are four. Strength is all we could manage, surely.”
The young woman murmured to him. Ulyse nodded.
“Four. Strengthening it is. Together, then.”
He looked at the other four [Mages]. And they all raised their parasols and opened them as one. It was more than a symbolic gesture—as they did, Trey felt them casting a spell. Out of sight, invisible, but for Ulyse’s moving lips, the hypnotic swirl of Mirin’s colorful parasol. But Trey saw it, saw the magic wrap and weave as the four, led by Ulyse, twisted it around the blade.
And then—did they tie a knot? No, that wasn’t the word for it. They tied the magic into the metal, anchored it in some way Trey couldn’t describe, only see. And the enchantment made the blade glow in Trey’s vision. A complex spell held in the blade, but a simple purpose even he could understand at his low level.
Ulyse announced softly. He lifted his finger, and the sword twisted around. It returned to Orthenon, back first, and he gently lifted the blade out of the air. Inspected it. Ulyse leaned on his parasol, suddenly tired, but his smile was one of satisfaction.
“It will not break so easily, and great force will be needed for the blade to so much as bend. It is not what we could do if there were eight, or even sixteen, but I think any [Enchanter] would pronounce it decent work.”
“Good. Nawalishifra of Tannousin.”
The young woman roused herself a second time. Orthenon handed her the sword. It glittered as she took it gripping the spine gingerly, staring at the metal.
“It is enchanted? Just like that? Then it is no longer my blade.”
“You forged it. The [Mages] simply gave it the power. I’m told it is simpler if the metal is newly made.”
“Simpler for you, maybe.”
Ulyse grumbled. The other tired [Mages] nodded. Orthenon ignored them.
“Present this to his Majesty. Daiton. Bring one of your blades. My king has heard of your bet and he wishes to see both swords.”
“He’s here? He’s back?”
Trey looked up, alarmed. He stared towards the sky. The sun was nearly set! Orthenon shook his head.
“He is returning. You can see his progress down the northern road. He will be here within the hour. And a banquet shall be held then.”
He turned. Orthenon strode away. But Trey followed him this time. He ran to the edge of the walls and exclaimed. The others, smiths, Tannousin clan, and others, followed. And they shouted too.
“Nawal! Nawal, come see!”
Nawalishifra of Clan Tannousin was so tired. Her lungs burned. Her arms hurt more than she could remember them ever aching. She had pushed herself so hard. But she refused to fall down like some weak coward. She clutched the sword to her, then realized she might actually fall on her blade. And wouldn’t that be a disgraceful end? So she looked around.
“Hesseif. Guard this until the King of Destruction touches it.”
The big [Warrior] accepted the blade with reverence. He nodded and Nawal turned to the insistent voice calling her name.
“What is it, you…you loud-mouthed boy?”
Trey smiled at Nawal, his eyes lighting up.
“Come and see! It’s what you wanted!”
He reached out, and to Nawal’s shock, tugged her by the arm. She staggered after him, half ready to flay him with her tongue if she could but find the words. But her insults stilled in her mouth as she reached the parapet.
The forge was located on a rise. Outside of the castle, but still within an inner wall. Beyond it lay the city of Reim. But further still, you could see the north road. And on it came a procession.
And there it was. Nawal’s eyes widened as the others helped her towards the edge of the parapet with Trey. She clung to the stone, her knees suddenly weak.
A glittering train slowly rode across the darkening landscape. A procession of horses, mounted warriors, and, swarming to meet them, a crowd of Reim’s people. But it was the wagons Nawal stared at. Even from this far away she saw they were laden with treasure.
Gold, catching the sunset light. Gemstones. Treasures of magic and art. They filled the wagons and shone with light. A man rode at their head. A figure flanked by two smaller riders. Nawal saw a glint of red and gold as he raised his hand towards his city. And she turned and saw Trey’s smile.
In days of old, it was said that the King of Destruction’s city flowed with wealth. Every day, caravans would enter the city, bringing treasures from the world over.
Nawal had thought it was a lie. She had looked upon Reim and seen the small truth buried behind the myth. Or so she’d thought. But now she looked upon the glittering train of wagons below and saw a different truth.
It was not an endless stream, just eight or so wagons. And the streets were hardly paved with gold, and the [Beggars] weren’t as rich as [Lords]. But the King of Destruction still rode through his city, followed by a caravan heaped with gold and artifacts. And when the roar of the crowd that flocked out to meet him reached Nawal’s ears, it felt like the entire palace shook.
“Legends. So it’s true. There is truth in his stories.”
She wavered on the parapet. The King of Destruction was riding through his city. And it felt like he was looking up at her. Her head felt light. Her knees weak. Nawal breathed shallowly.
Trey smiled at her. He looked at Nawal’s pale face, and then at the shining blade still held in Hesseif’s hands.
“Some things are true. There are legends. And the King of Destruction fits his stories. His vassals are the kind of thing you read about in stories. But I think…I think you’ll fit right in among them, Nawal.”
She looked at him. Trey pointed at her blade. She wanted to laugh. That bit of metal? Hardly. But he meant what he said. He was a fool. But she couldn’t help but like that. Nawal smiled at him. A genuine smile. Then she wavered and fell.
Trey caught her before she hit the ground.