There once was a couple that had two sons.
The first grew up fast, to be a strong healthy boy. As a toddler he was always getting into mischief, climbing up shelves and opening chests to crawl into them. His parents loved him but were exasperated, always having to keep an eye on him.
The second son came along a few years later. He had the same slate grey eyes and black hair of his brother but he was much more content to lie where he was, much to the delight of his parents. As a baby he was happy, healthy and the apple of his parent’s eye. But as he got older and still failed to walk they began to get concerned. They asked the local witch to take a look at him. She carefully examined him while he lay on a wool rug, poking and prodding him a few times before tiddling his tummy. As he laughed she turned to his parents.
“This child will never walk,” she told them. “But he seems bright and happy. He will still have a long and productive life.” With that she turned and walked off into the forest.
However the parents, though they listened carefully to all that the witch said, focused on the first part. They could only see what the boy could not do, not what he would be able to, and they mourned the loss of the ability he had never had to begin with.
As the witch said the boy grew up happy, with a strong intellect that was able to quickly learn skills. His parents neglected this side of him, seeing him as an invalid and nothing more. They owned an inn and during the day they would sit him by the fire in the common room, where he would be warm, and at night his older brother would carry him up to his bed. The boy quickly became bored with this and would beg his parents to let him help more about the inn. But they would lovingly tell him that there was nothing he could do and that he should just sit quietly.
He would have gone insane if his brother hadn’t one day slipped him a knife and shown him the beginnings of how to whittle. With something to finally do he threw himself into it, stealing spare pieces of wood from the fire and carving them into heroes and fantastic creatures. His fingers quickly grew strong and nimble and each piece was more detail, more complex. His parents were very impressed with his skill and would set the pieces around the inn. “Our son made those,” they would tell anyone who listened and several who would not. “He’s very skilled, despite the fact he can’t walk.”
As if people used legs to carve wood, the boy thought angrily to himself whenever he heard this. But the carving at least gave him something to do and so that was how he passed his days, until a few weeks just after his fourteenth birthday.
It was then, sitting in front of the fire and whittling away wood and time, he first heard of the wizard.
It was the title that first caught his attention, for he had always been interested in magic and those that worked it. Bit by bit, through eavesdropping, he began to hear more about the man. He learned that he lived on a hill in the middle of a forest, not that far away. He learned that he lived in a lighthouse. And he learned that the wizard was capable of miraculous thing.
Maybe he could even help him walk?
He excitedly told his family about the wizard and how he wanted to go see if he could help him. They dismissed the idea.
“What’s the point?” they asked. “He won’t be able to change anything. You can’t travel and we can’t take time away from the inn. You’re fine as you are, you just have to accept it.”
They told him to give up hope. Except for his brother.
His brother woke him in the middle of the night and carried him out to the stable. In there was a horse already saddled and the brother put him on it.
“You’re wasted here,” his brother told him as he began tying him to the saddle. “And if you stay, you’ll waste away. Go, find this wizard, if that’s what you want to do.”
“But whose horse is this?” the boy asked and the brother just grinned.
“Someone who won’t miss it for a bit. There’s food and some money I saved in the saddlebags.”
“Yes,” his brother told him. “You can.”
And with that he slapped the flank of the horse and sent them thundering out into the night.
The first hour was very uncomfortable, for the boy and the horse both. The boy of course had no experience with riding and, while the horse did it was usually ridden by someone who knew what they were doing. Eventually though they managed to sort themselves and started off to see the wizard.
The boy had spent countless hours imagining the journey and pouring over maps so he had a good idea of where he was going. That faith in himself lasted for the next three hours. Then he realised that this was the first time he had been outside by himself and that woods all looked the same in the dark.
He had almost lost hope when the first beam of light flashed through the sky. He was sure that he imagined it, that a night of almost no sleep was making him delirious, but then it came again. And again. He remembered that the wizard lived in a lighthouse and he urged the horse onwards. They had made it!
Then something vast and dark swept over his head. The horse, already unhappy with being in the woods at night, panicked. It turned and fled, seeking the safety of the barn and roads that it knew. It paid no attention to the branches sweeping low over its head and barely noticed when the weight on its back was abruptly gone.
The boy didn’t see the tree branch so much as experience it, an impact to his chest, a tearing as the ropes binding his legs failed, an eternity in the air, the horse beneath him gone, and then the thump of the ground, twinned with a hit to the head that sent his vision reeling into the dark.
The last thing he saw was a woman standing over him, gleaming silver in the beams of light that passed overhead. Then there was just blackness and silence.
When he awoke he had no idea how much time had passed nor where he was. The hard ground had been replaced by a soft mattress. The dark was replaced by a steady white light. That was all he could notice beyond the shawl of pain that was draped over him. He shifted and a groan escaped his lips.
“Are you alright?”
The voice was soft and masculine. The boy squinted into the light and gradually made out the face staring at him in concern, topped with thinning brown hair. He wore a routh leather apron and a belt of tools. The surroundings faded in with him. They were in a large, circular room that spiralled up into the distance, the walls lined with shining orbs that mimicked the sun. The inside was filled with tables, bits of metal in fantastical shapes, barrels and countless other things. None of which were more important to the boy than the question that burned it’s way out of him.
“Are you the wizard?”
The man snorted. “It’s what they call me but that’s not important right now. You had a bad fall. Can you feel if anything if broken?”
The boy sat up, stretching this way and that. “Everything seems fine. But bruised.”
The wizard had been watching him closely. “Can you move your legs?”
“No,” the boy replied. “But I never could before. That’s why I’m here.”
Quickly he told the man of his birth, his life and what had caused him to seek the wizard out. Sorrow passed like a cloud over the man’s face. “I’m afraid that I can’t help you to walk,” he told the boy. “I don’t have that power.” Seeing the boy’s face drop he quickly continued. “But I could make something that could make it easier for you to get about. A wheeled chair, that you can sit in and pilot yourself. That would give you some freedom.”
The boy barely had to think about it. To be able to walk would be wonderful but any freedom was better than none. “Thank you,” he told the wizard, tears beading in his eyes. “Thank you so much.”
The man looked embarrassed and waved away the thanks. “I’ve not got much else to do, stuck in this tower. It’s my pleasure. But it will take a while. Are you ok staying here while I make it?”
The boy nodded, for where else would he go? Back to the fireside and the whittling?
“It’s late and I have to be getting to my bed. But first I’d like to introduce you to Serafina.” He beckoned and up to the bed stepped a woman of metal.
The boy couldn’t help but gawp. Silken hair the blue of an open sky fell down a steel face, a few dents scattered across her cheeks like dimples. Over her heart was carved a maker’s mark, a sun rising. She was dressed in normal homespun clothes like everyone else he had ever known but she wore them differently, as if they were merely a coat of paint.
“Like you she came to my for help but after I’d given it she found she had nowhere left to go. So she stays here and helps me. She was the one who found you.”
“Th..thank you,” the boy stammered.
Serafina looked at him for a moment, shrugged and walked away. The wizard glanced after her then turned to the boy. “It takes her a while to warm up to people, I wouldn’t take it personally,” he explained apologetically. “Now get some sleep. I’ll start in the morning.”
With that he headed up the stairs. Once he’d vanished from sight the light abruptly shut off, leaving the boy in the darkness. He settled down on the bed but, though he was tired and aching, he found it very hard to go to sleep. He kept wriggling in his bed, the excitement coursing through him.
Freedom would be his!
The next day the boy was awake when the wizard walked down the stairs. There was a small kitchen in a corner of the massive room and after a quick breakfast he began measuring the boy, the length of his limbs and his torso. The boy sat as still as possible while this happened and then the wizard began walking around the room, gathering what materials he needed. Finally he sat down at a table and started to work.
The boy watched all of this but creation is never a fast process and he couldn’t quite see what the wizard was actually doing. The excitement began to wane and soon boredom set in. This wasn’t much better than sitting by the fire back at the inn. At least there had his whittling to entertain him. With that thought he asked the wizard, “Do you have some spare wood? And a knife?”
The wizard started up from what he’d been working on. Looking at the boy as if he he’d forgotten he was there he smiled apologetically and from some corner he found some cast off and a sharp knife. Then he got back to work.
The boy turned the wood over and over in his hands, getting a feel for it before carving into it. He’d whittle the horse that’d he’d ridden, he decided. It may have thrown him at the end but it had got him here and he wanted to remember it.
He lost himself in the task and when he looked up, the horse finished, he saw the wizard watching him. “You’re very skilled with that,” he said.
The boy shrugged. “I had time to learn.”
The wizard thought for a moment then disappeared off into the depths of the tower. When he came back he had another chair with him along with Serafina. “Would you like to help me make the chair?” the wizard asked. “If it gets damaged once you leave here then you should know how to fix it.”
“Can I?” asked the boy. “I’m just normal. I can’t even walk.”
The wizard rolled his eyes. “As if you needed legs to make something. All you need for this is a sharp mind and a willingness to learn, both of which you obviously have.”
“Then yes, please.”
Serafina, moved over to the boy. “Are you ok with me picking you up?” she asked. His permission granted the boy was carefully but firmly lifted and placed next to the wizard. The table was spread before them, holding the various pieces that would go into the chair. The boy recognised few of them except some barrel hoops but the wizard explained as he picked up each piece.
“When making something on wheels the important thing is balance…”
And so the boy began to learn some of the wizard’s trade. He learned of gears, small movements that turned to bigger movements. Of suspension, that would cushion him over even the roughest ground. And of wood, how to sand it, bend it and shape it.
That wasn’t all he learned. He quickly realised that, though the wizard had made him breakfast, Serafina was the cook in the tower. He watched her dicing carrots and stirring pots and asked if he could make a meal sometime. She agreed, the first time he heard her oddly musical voice, and allowed him to make dinner the next day.
It was a magnificent disaster that ended with the room filling with thick black smoke. Serafina had to carry him out while the wizard followed behind, choking and wiping at weeping eyes. Then she strode back inside and twenty minutes later the smoke began to clear. The boy wasn’t allowed to cook after that but she did sit him at the counter next to her and had him prep the vegetables as she explained what to do and, more importantly, what to never do.
The month that passed was the happiest of the boy’s life. He threw himself into every day, experiencing all he could and settled down to sleep with a brain engorged with new knowledge. He sometimes felt that he wished the chair would never be finished, that he would be here making it forever but the joy he felt the day it was finally completed swept that aside.
It was a graceful thing, carved from the lightest wood and metal that the wizard could find. The wheels were solid, banded, pine with handles running along the rims for him to grip and push. The cushion was plush, well-padded with goose down and dyed the same blue as Serafina’s hair.
The metal woman was nowhere to be seen, having stepped out a while ago, so it was the wizard that helped the boy into the chair. He wasn’t as strong nor as gentle as his assistant but the boy didn’t care. He was barely seated before he grabbed the wheels and pushed them forward. They turned smoothly and the boy shot forward, jerked by the unexpected movement. He passed by the worktable, reached the kitchen and, in fits and starts, turned round again.
He was moving! Moving on his own! He could decide where to go, when he wanted to. He wasn’t a burden anymore.
On the verge of tears the boy manoeuvred the chair over to the door.
That was where he saw Serafina dance for the first time. With sword in hand she walked the line between the trees and the foot of the hill, swirling around obstacles that existed only to her and cutting through the ghosts in her way. Every step was a decision, the blade seeming a natural part of her body, not an extension, just something that had always been part of her. It was a brutal thing, of steel and silver, but the grace and elegance turned it into one of the most beautiful things the boy had ever seen.
He sat there watching her for an uncountable amount of time before she noticed him and stroke over, sheathing the sword at her waist with a mutter. “So you got the chair finished. Congratulations. Will you be leaving now?”
“Um…” The boy felt suddenly awkward. There was nothing tying him here but he realised that he didn’t want to leave.
The wizard spoke up. “Well he’s got to learn how to properly move around with it. If it’s ok with him then he should stay for a bit longer.”
The boy gratefully agreed. The metal woman nodded, no expression on her immovable face, and strode past them.
The boy had agreed out of a desire to stay but getting around with the chair was harder than he’d expected. Getting the chair moving was easy enough but it took time to learn how to do so smoothly, without stops and starts. His palms were rubbed raw from friction and his arms started to burn. Getting in and out of it was even harder and he frequently collapsed onto the floor.
He wouldn’t have managed without Serafina. She had decided to take an interest and hovered around him, ready to provide help when he needed it, in steadying the chair or picking him up off the ground.
“Don’t worry,” she told him at one point. “It will seem hard and like you can do nothing but give up. But you can do it. You will get there.”
“What do you know?” he snarled at her. It had been the fifth time that day that he had landed on the floor and he was sore and angry. “I’ve seen you dance. You’re so graceful. You don’t know what it’s like being me.”
She carefully finished helping him back into his chair then stepped back. Her metal face couldn’t move much and so rarely showed emotion but the boy had learned to tell her moods from how she stood and moved or the tone of her voice. Now though she was a blank slate, giving nothing away and when she spoke her voice was neutral and indecipherable.
“We all have to learn how to move at some point. It doesn’t come naturally to us all.”
He could tell that he had hurt her and he apologised for his outburst. She nodded acceptance but walked out the door and wasn’t seen for the rest of the day. The boy had to cook that night but luckily only burned the food a little.
The next day she was back and as helpful as ever. The topic was never brought up again but the boy made sure to keep thanking her, asking her advice and showing how much he appreciated her.
Because she was right. His muscles adapted and grew strong, his hands grew calluses and soon he was flowing across the floor like water. He still couldn’t climb to stairs to whatever waited above this room but compared to what he had before he was in heaven. Serafina watched one night, leaning against the wall as he zipped from one side to the other, laughing in glee at his progress. She straightened up and walked over to him.
“Want to dance?” she asked.
He looked at her questioningly and she stretched out her hand to him. He took it and she began to walk around him in a circle. With his other hand he spun one of his wheels, turning with her. They circled a few times then she let go, twirling and stepping backward. He rolled after her and they came together again.
It was a thing of elegance, their dance. It was like gears in a system. The boy and Serafina turned into each other, again and again, breaking apart and returning. The wizard looked on in amusement and clapped when they were done. Serafina looked at the boy with her diamond eyes shining. “You can move beautifully,” she said. Then her eyes dimmed a bit. “Will you be leaving now?”
The boy didn’t want to, he had found a home here, but he couldn’t think of a way to ask to stay. He didn’t want to be a burden. Before he had a chance the wizard spoke up again.
“I’ve been thinking about it and I’d like to show you how to convert a dwelling, to make it easier for you to move about. We could do up this tower so you could get upstairs. I think a maybe a lift…”
The wizard was cut off was the boy flew across the floor towards him, throwing his arms round him in a bone crushing hug. The man patted the boy’s shoulder awkwardly while Serafina looked on, her posture open and excited.
And so the boy learned more. Of weights and measures, that could send platforms soaring upwards. Of angles, those were easy to wheel up and would take stresses the best. And finally of whatever the wizard wanted to teach. Through no conversation but through unspoken mutual agreement the boy became the wizard’s apprentice.
Part of what the boy learned was what the wizard was doing in the middle of the woods. His job was to keep the lighthouse in good repair and make sure the light kept turning. The boy didn’t know why it was so important, the wizard wouldn’t tell him, saying it was a surprise. But he saw more of the tower as the conversion continued. Once the lift was completed and he went soaring up through the air, his heart in his mouth, he found that there were a number of rooms between the ground floor and the light. There was the wizard’s room and Serafina also had a room, though hers was used more as a storeroom as she didn’t need to sleep. And finally he had a room as well, his bed moved up from the ground floor. The walls were covered with shelves and he slowly filled them with his whittlings. Eventually he would be able to get up to the light but he was ok with waiting for that. His life was perfect. And it remained that way until the night of the storm.
The first the boy knew of the catastrophe was a flash of lightning that shook the building, made the lights flicker and masked the explosion with a rumble of thunder. He was in his room, whittling a figurine for Serafina and paid little attention the weather. Then his door was flung open and the metal woman was dashing inside.
“The lamp was struck and exploded. The wizard was next to it and he’s hurt. You’ve got to come quick!”
She was out the door again in a moment and the boy was hot on her heels. The wizard had been placed in his bed and looked terrible. Smoke rose from his prone body and his remaining hair had been burnt away. Serafina was busy pressing cold water onto the deep burns that marred his skin and wrapping them in bandages. It was a mercy that he was unconscious.
The boy started to help just as the wizard woke up. He locked eyes with the boy and grabbed for his hand.
“The light! The light must not go out!”
“It’s broken,” Serafina told him as she continued to tend to him. “It won’t shine again for a while.”
“Then take me up there. I can fix it,” the wizard demanded. But that was more effort than his body was ready for and he slipped back into darkness.
They finally finished tending to him then looked at each other. “There’s no way he’s going to be able to do anything if he’s unconscious,” Serafina said. “Even when he wakes up….he was badly injured. He’s not going anywhere.”
The boy squared his shoulders. “Take me up there. I might be able to do something.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. But I won’t be able to tell until I get up there.”
“Alright. If you’re sure.” Then she picked him up and they were away.
The boy barely got to see the top of the tower as they swept through it. The next thing he knew they were out in the pounding rain, lightning still flickering through the cloud, past an expanse of wood that reached off into space, and looking at the lamp in front of him. Serafina carefully put him down beside it and at an instruction from him ran back down to get some tools. A moment later she returned and he was unbolting a metal plate from the side, exposing the twisted innards and trying to figure out how it worked.
In essence it was similar to how the wheels on his wheelchair worked. A lamp burned in the middle, fed by a reservoir of oil. A metal hood fitted over half of it, a lens was over the other half and a bunch of gears caused it to rotate, sending the beam of light out into the night. There was a grinding coming from where the gears were locked together, still trying to turn, powered from some other point in the tower by the same engine that gave them the lights. The boy managed to find the switch to turn it off. At least they still had that.
Which was about all they had. The lightning strike had ignited the reservoir, causing the explosion. The lamp itself was fine but the gears had been shredded, bent out of configuration and shape. The tank that had held the oil was just gone, the only parts of it left caught up in the other parts of the mechanism.
Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Serafina begin to back away. The boy turned his head and yelled to her, “Where are you going? I need your help!”
“I don’t know if I can stay here. I’m metal! What if I attract the lightning?”
“I’m elbow deep in a huge chunk of metal! I don’t think you’re going to make much of a difference!”
She dithered by the door back down then came and squatted beside him. “What do you need?”
The boy began pulling out gears and spindles. “A hammer, to begin with. Some of these gears can be beaten back into shape.”
“I’ll do it,” she offered. “I’m stronger than you.”
“Sounds good. Then grab a barrel of oil as well. You do that and I’ll try and work out how I’m going to feed the lamp.”
They both dove into their tasks and soon the sound of beating metal was as regular as the thunder. Serafina would finish the gears and the boy would desperately thread them back into place or send her back down the tower looking for replacements. Time past weirdly in the storm and the boy wasn’t sure whether they’d been working for hours or minutes. All he knew was that he was soaked to the skin and his hands were cut and bruised on the metal.
He had just about finished reconstructing the mechanism, he hoped, though who knew if it would actually turn again, when he felt Serafina’s hand on his shoulder. “Look!” she yelled, pointing out over the forest.
Between flashes of lightning he saw it. A shape on the horizon, wallowing like a whale of clouds. Vast, even at that distance. And getting closer. “We need that lamp working again!” she called to him. “Now!”
The boy had barely started on the oil but was desperate. He grabbed a rubber hose that Serafina had gotten him and shoved it into the barrel. He sucked hard, until the black liquid was spilling into his mouth, then shoved the flowing mess into place. “That’s got it,” he said, slamming the metal plate into place and securing it with a few hasty turns of a spanner. The shape from the horizon had grown bigger and it was approaching through the storm with a speed he didn’t want to think about.
“Are you sure?”
“In no way.” With that he flicked the switch.
There was a creaking, a groaning, and a screeching. He flinched away, half expecting it to explode again but then something gave and the gears started turning. The metal hood spun in place and the lamp shone, lancing out into the darkness.
Just in time to illuminate the ship that was heading right for them.
The boy wasn’t sure of what he was seeing, just an impression of a prow spearing towards him, before turning at the last moment as it reacted to the light. The prow turned into a wall of wood, with railings around the top and figures in long blue coats hurrying to and fro on the top of it. It slowed with shocking speed and drew alongside the wooden bridge to nowhere that suddenly became a dock.
A head baring a fancy hat stuck itself over the railing. “Ahoy the lighthouse! What happened? The lamp was off and this isn’t a storm to get lost in!”
“The lamp exploded and hurt the wizard,” Serafina shouted back, perfectly at ease with this strange happening. “We only just got it fixed.”
The man cursed then threw Serafina a rope. “Permission to come aboard?”
She tied it securely to a nearby post. “Permission granted. Get inside.”
The sailors swarmed the tower and the boy tiredly leaned back. He found Serafina there to catch him and relaxed into her arms. “Would you like me to take you back downstairs?” she asked.
He sighed contentedly. “Yes please.”
The next week passed in a blur. The man in the hat, captain of the ship, took command, setting the wizard to the care of his surgeon and putting his mechanic on fixing the repair that the boy had done to the lamp. The mechanic was surprisingly complementary, in his own curse laden way, and happily accepted the boy’s help in setting it right. Serafina was kept busy cooking and helping the crew move supplies about.
The wizard healed quickly and one day the boy found him hovering over his shoulder, looking at his precious lamp. The mechanic told him about what the boy had done and he quietly thanked him. The boy looked away, embarrassed.
That night the three of them, boy, wizard and metal woman, found themselves together in the wizard’s bedroom.
“You did a good job,” the wizard told him seriously. “The mechanic is looking for an assistant and, after seeing you work, requested you.”
The boy blinked slowly, not sure he was properly understanding. The wizard continued.
“It’s a good job, working a sky ship. They fly everywhere and you’ll get to see the world. And, though they aren’t the biggest, you can get about them with ease.”
The boy swallowed, his throat thick. “I…I can’t,” he said.
The wizard frowned. “You’re welcome to stay here. I like your company. But, frankly, you’ve got a talent and you’d be wasted here.”
“But I wouldn’t know anyone.”
“I could go with you,” Serafina spoke. She looked at both of them awkwardly. “If you want.”
“You would? But you live here.”
She looked away, silent, and the wizard spoke up.
“I think that’s a good idea. You’ve brightened up since the boy first came, Serafina. Go where you’re happy.”
Finally the boy voiced the secret fear from his heart. “Do you think I can? I couldn’t even walk a few months ago.”
There was a moment’s silence then both his companions burst into laughter.
“Look at all you’ve done!” The wizard told him. “You’re one of the fastest learners I’ve ever seen. They’d be lucky to have you!”
“Silly boy,” Serafina chuckled. “As if you need legs to fly.”
And so, together, they left.
It’s said they still soar through the air to this day, the sword that walks and the boy who flies. And where else would they go? They had found their place in the world.