It was a dark, stormy day when the woman from the north walked into the small village on the plains. Far had she walked with no destination in mind, just a desire for distance and the road beneath her feet. The wide-open spaces around her were familiar, though the ones that she had left behind her were very different. Maybe it was that that brought her here, seeking a glimpse of home so far from it. Or maybe her feet just happened to pick that road. It didn’t matter very much to the wanderer. All she wanted was to get away and her surroundings didn’t matter much to her.
She was halfway through the village, with no intent on stopping, when her eyes caught sight of a wooden sign, handing above the door to the blacksmith. The symbol on it was one she recognised, had carried with her for years. She hesitated on the doorstep, the first time she’d stopped walking all day, then pushed open the door and went inside.
The blacksmith store was tidy and organised, a counter by the door and a forge in the corner. Tools lined the walls on specially crafted hooks and a table showed a spread of half-finished project, a medley of iron and bronze. The blacksmith herself was a big woman, with biceps carved by her profession. Her hair was shaved close to her head and glimmered in the light of the nearby forge. Her skin was pale, as though it didn’t often see the sun. Her eyes were a piercing blue, but they were gentle and her smile, when she saw the traveller, was kind.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you before. Are you not from around here?” she asked with an accent that proved that she wasn’t either. The wanderer didn’t reply, digging in her bag and pulling something out.
“I was passing through and saw your sign. Are you the one who created this blade?”
On the counter she placed a dagger with an iron handle that bore the symbol of a sun rising. The blacksmith picked it up and examined it for a minute, pulling it from it’s sheath and watching the heat and light shimmer through the leaf blade. “Yes, this is one of mine. From a long while ago.”
The wanderer nodded. “Then you should keep it.” With that she turned to go.
“Wait!” The blacksmith was round the counter in a moment, faster than her bulk would suggest. “This is yours. Bought and paid for.”
“I don’t want it,” the wanderer replied. “I carried it with me as a curse and now that I’ve found it a home I can leave it.”
“I don’t feel right taking it for free. Let me give you a meal and a place to stay for the night at least.”
The wanderer hesitated, for though she wanted to go it had been a long time since she had slept in a proper bed and she had no money for an inn. Eventually she nodded.
“That would be nice.”
“Then let’s go.” In a moment the blacksmith was dousing the forge and getting ready to leave. When the wanderer protested the blacksmith laughed. “The villagers know where I live. They can come and get me if they need me.”
So they left the shop together and headed towards the blacksmith’s house, the sky getting darker above them. In the distance there was a crack of thunder and the blacksmith’s eyes flickered to a tower standing on a nearby hill but neither commented on it.
The blacksmith’s house was just as orderly as her shop, with everything in its own neat and correct place, scrubbed clean and waiting to be used. There also wasn’t a lot. A bed, covered in a brightly woven blanket, a table, a couple of chairs, some cupboards and a shimmering pot over the fire. No decorations, nothing surplus to requirement. Except in the corner, tucked away and yet somehow prominent, stood a sheathed sword. The blacksmith saw the wanderer looking at it and laughed. “You’re not the only one cursed with a weapon. Now take a seat and I’ll get us some soup.”
The wanderer subsided into one of the chairs and watched the blacksmith walk around her house. She used small, economical movements, never moving very far with each careful step, every so often shooting a glance at the ceiling or at her guest. It was controlled, as if she wasn’t used to space. But it was efficient and soon there were two bowls steaming on the table, with a hunk of bread to accompany it and the blacksmith was sitting across from her. The wanderer ate quickly and in silence. It was delicious.
“Are you cold?” She looked up in surprise and found the blacksmith regarding her. She wondered what she saw. A strange person, burdening her with their presence, clad in furs and wearing gloves despite the heat of the fire? Or something else? It had been so long since the wanderer had interacted with anyone that she was no longer sure.
“I don’t feel the cold,” she said but slid off her furs anyway. The gloves stayed on, as they always did.
The silence came back, grew oppressive. Eventually the wanderer felt hat she had to break it. “That’s a marvelous dagger. How did you make it?”
The blacksmith hesitated then ran a hand over her closely cropped head. “My hair. If add it to the metal it gains some properties.” A pause. “I don’t use it any more.”
“Why? It seems like the sort of thing that can make you rich and famous.”
The blacksmith’s smile was pained. “It wasn’t worth the cost.”
The wanderer nodded. “I know about that.”
“Have you traveled far?” Apparently now that she’d spoken the blacksmith felt comfortable enough to continue talking. The wanderer nodded.
“Far and not far enough.”
This killed the conversation. The blacksmith was still regarding her though and eventually she spoke again.
“I don’t know who you are, or what happened to you. I don’t need to know but you look like you’re carrying a weight. Would you like to talk about it? That can help.”
The wanderer though for a moment. It had been a long time since she’d spoken about it, though not long enough. Still the offer was kind and fairly given. She took a deep breath and prepared herself for the worse. She hoped that storm would stay away. She hated sleeping outside in the rain.
The blacksmith must have noticed the change in her for she asked, “What’s your tale?”
The northern woman took another deep breath and let it out slowly. “Far in the north there stands a village, whose name means ‘The First Warning.’ It was the home of hunters and heroes because once a generation there came an Ice Queen, born of nature where the glaciers met the frozen sea. When such a threat arose a hero would go to face her.
“The hero of this story was a man named Adlartok. He had been trained for the duty for all of his life, since he first climbed the mountains using the hidden paths and brought back a fish from the secret lakes. He was given the task and a special knife, with the heat of summer in its blade. He set off alone to vanquish her. But his sister, so used to looking after him and fearing for his life, followed him.
“Afraid of being sent back she waited half a day and then started tracking him. She followed him across the snow plains until she came to the ice walls of the glaciers. She got there just in time to see him slip and fall, plummeting to his death. She was unable to even be there when he died and his body was already covered with snow when she came upon him.
“She dug off the snow just enough to get the magic knife he carried and then scaled the glacier herself. Across the barren ice she went until she came to a glorious castle of ice and stone. She hunted through it, looking to avenge her brother until she came upon the ice queen herself.
“Only there was no ice queen, just a child with the power of winter inside it. She looked at the child and at the naked blade of the knife steaming in her hand and weakness crawled into her heart. She sheathed summer and hugged the child. And in doing so she betrayed her brother and all that he’d died for.
“She tried to teach the child to control the power it had been born with but couldn’t, for what did a mortal woman like her know of the power of winter? And while she wasted time the storms of winter crept south, smothering the crops, burying people in snow drifts and dooming the world. Eventually she came to her senses and realised that the child had to die. So she put it to bed, made sure that it was sleeping and then killed her.”
The wanderer’s voice broke on the last word.
“And what happened next?”
The woman with winter’s blood on her hands laughed. “What happened next? That’s the end of the story. The evil child was defeated, the threat gone away.”
“But what of the hero?”
“The only hero in that story lies dead in the snow where he fell.”
The fire was the only noise to be heard for a while. The wanderer should have been used to it, for she had lived in silence for many years. But this one was different, felt oppressive somehow. She needed to break it with a question.
“What about your story? How did the girl with the magic hair end up as a blacksmith in a small village?”
The blacksmith took a deep breath, remembered pain flickering through her eyes, then began.
“Once upon a time, in a small village nestled deep in the heart of the Greatwoods, a little baby girl was born to a loving couple. Her hair was the colour of beaten bronze and her cheeks stole the hue of the rosiest of apples. Her parents looked upon her with delight, for they had long wanted a child and they had got a fair one. However, as the young girl grew up they became sad. For while some little girls were destined for weaving or baking or sewing it became clear that their little girl was destined for metal. She spent her days around her father, the blacksmith, and became fascinated with his work. It was there, in that fascination, that they discovered a curious property of her hair. When beaten into a heated blade the metal took on the properties of summer. Just a little would make the metal strong, a lot and it would shimmer with heat.
“The father, because he loved his daughter, taught her the secrets of his craft and soon she was proficient, helping to create all sorts of tools and weapons, each imbued with the power of her magic hair. She revelled in her power, to forge, to build, to create.
“But wherever there is power there is greed. A local baron heard about these magical weapons and wanted them for himself. In his mind they would be an asset, to help him expand his lands and fight against his neighbours. The blacksmith, though, was a kind man and didn’t want that so he refused. Three times the baron came to him. The first time he came with money, to lure him away to his castle. The second time he came with threats, against his family and the village. The third time he came with soldiers. They rounded up the people and put them in a big cage, hostage while the blacksmith went to work.
But they had missed the girl with the bronze hair. She’d been out in the woods the third time they’d come and returned to the occupation of her village. She knew that she had to do something but she was one and they were twenty. No fair fight would work out in her favour.
“So she didn’t fight fair. She slaughtered them.”
The blacksmith was silent for a moment.
“The baron was last He begged on his knees but the girl was full of anger at what he’d done and plunged her blade into his heart. Then she went and freed her village from the cage.
“But the people didn’t look on her as a saviour. They stared with horror at the girl stained with man blood, at the shimmering blade in her hand and in that moment they saw her as the reason for all they had suffered. They shouted at her, pulled up stones from the ground and drove her out. She looked for her parents but they too wore the looks of horror and she knew she no longer had a place there. She fled from the village and fell into a deep dark hole.”
“You mean depression?”
“No, a literal hole. The depression was already with her.” The blacksmith shrugged. “She found a new family there, and some measure of healing. Eventually she left and came here, using her skills to help people, to create not destroy. She cut her hair short so that the temptation to use it never returned. But she knew that no matter what she did she could never return to the village in the heart of the Greatwoods.”
“It was different for the girl in my story,” the northern woman said abruptly. “The village, what there was of it, welcomed her back.”
“I thought the story stopped before then.”
“The story should never have started in the first place. But there’s always an after the end.”
The blacksmith laughed. “Don’t I know it. So what happened to that girl who slew winter?”
“Like the fool she was she almost stayed in the palace of ice, waiting to starve or freeze, but she couldn’t. The death of the child had changed her and now she no longer feared the cold, nor felt its bite. So she went back to her village, for what else was she to do? She knew nothing else. She was welcomed back as a saviour and a feast was held in her honour. And after that things went back to normal, or at least for everyone else. The girl was honoured and respected but each bowed head, every thanks felt poisonous. She had committed a great crime. She had killed a defenceless little girl, a girl she’d come to love. She shouldn’t have been honoured. She should be punished.
“A time came when the girl couldn’t take it any more so she left the village with the magic knife. With nothing else to do she headed south. And she kept walking, with no direction. She’s walking still and may never stop.”
The soup was gone, somehow consumed in between the story telling, the bread nothing more than a crust. The blacksmith reached across the wood between them, carefully, like towards a wounded animal. Her hands hovered in the middle of the table, a question. The wanderer hesitated then answered taken them, glove to skin.
“I feel sorry for the girl in your story,” said the blacksmith. “She didn’t have any good choices. Either she killed the girl she loved like a sister or her whole village paid the price. No matter what she did she had guilt to live with.”
“I feel sorry for the girl in yours,” said the wanderer. “She did what she had to do, the only way she could, and she got punished for it. She got the guilt and the hatred. Your girl didn’t deserve either.”
“Neither did yours.”
“Are you sure?” In a moment she had broken the hold and then, before she could think better of it, her gloves were off and her hands were free, in all their horror and glory. They were white, like marble or the snow, except for their tips which were the blue translucence of ice. Murderers’ hands. Killers’ hands.
The blacksmith took those hands in hers. “Yes, I’m sure.”
The wanderer stared. The hands that held her were warm and she could feel the calluses that had been built up by a lifetime of work. She felt trapped, somehow, though she knew she could take them back if she needed to. Trapped by acceptance.
They sat there for a while, holding and being held, until eventually the blacksmith spoke.
“You could stay here for a while, if you wanted. Take some time, unload some of that weight.”
“I…I wouldn’t want to impose. I don’t want to stay where I’m not needed.”
The blacksmith’s smile was sunlight and summer warmth. “You would be most welcome.”
The wanderer was about to answer when a frantic banging came on the door.
The two woman exchanged looks then the blacksmith carefully unclasped their hands and got up. The wanderer couldn’t see who was at the door but she heard them, a young voice, high with controlled panic.
“I need to come in now.”
A boy shoved his way in, brown of hair, brown of eyes, unremarkable. Behind him he dragged a little girl, who clung to his back, hiding away. She could see a wisp of floating curls, a dark blue to black but that was all.
The blacksmith closed the door behind the boy and stared at him. “What do you want? And who do you have here?”
The boy looked between the two women, confused to see that there was more than just the blacksmith there but he shouldered on. “You’re from far away, aren’t you? Could you go back there?”
“Maybe.” The blacksmith’s eyes were cold. “Why?”
He took a deep breath and pointed behind him. “This is the Storm King’s daughter. He’s been beating her in his anger and abusing her so I rescued her. I need you to take her and go far away, where he can never find her again. Please.”
The blacksmith was uncertain, taking aback by such a sudden and drastic request. “I don’t know…”
That was when the girl peaked around her protector. Her hair was curly and fluffy, like a cloud about to burst into rain. Her eyes were the sky just before dawn. But it was her face that made the wanderer catch her breath. Purple, blue, yellow, green. Mottled with bruises.
Uki looked at Eos and saw agreement there. She spoke but she spoke for both of them.
“We’ll look after her.”