There was once a couple who lived in the Greatwoods. They owned a shop in a village and worked hard at it. They would order in supplies from villages around them and sell them to their own villagers. Thanks to them people living around them were able to acquire things that they would never have access to otherwise and they became very much respected. And eventually they had a little girl and their lives were complete.
But life had passed on a bit before they were blessed with a child. They loved her and raised her to the best of their ability and when she was old enough she started to help around their shop. She would help stock the shelves, carrying goods from the storage basement and sweep and polish the floor. As the years went on she started doing more until she reached the age of fourteen and took over delivering groceries once a week to the people who lived out in the woods.
To begin with this was a simple job, one which the girl looked forward to. She would put on her green cloak, shoulder a backpack full of the less delicate supplies and then pick up her basket that contained the items that could be broken. She would spend the rest of the day walking through the forest, greeting her far flung neighbours and enjoying the fresh air and peace of the wood.
But after a while things began to get dangerous. A pack of wolves moved into the area, known mostly through their howls in the middle of the night. A little while later word of bandits attacking lone travellers started being whispered. The couple were worried about their daughter and suggested that she might stop the deliveries. But she loved her days walking along the trails in the trees and wouldn’t hear of it.
So they went to see a local witch, hoping that she might have the answer.
The witch lived deep in the forest, in the Heartwoods where few dared venture. The shopkeepers and their daughter closed the shop for the day and set off before the sun had fully risen. To begin with they traveled through the light but as they got closer to their destination a dusk fell, the trees crowding closer together and blocking out the sun. Then, at a little before midday they arrived at the clearing where she lived and saw the witch.
She was the antithesis of her surroundings. After the gloom of the Heartwoods the bright patch of sunlight that shone into the glade was almost as blinding as the witch’s smile upon seeing them. She was out working on her garden, her glossy black hair falling in ribbons down her back.
“Welcome,” she cried, straightening up and dusting the dirt off her hands. “Come in, come in. I was just about to have a cup of tea.”
The family exchanged a look but it seemed rude to refuse so they followed her in.
The witch’s house was built back onto one of the gigantic Heart Trees. Once through the door they found themselves in a large room, with tables and chairs scattered about and a cauldron bubbling over a fire. In quick order they found themselves pushed into plump, comfy seats while the witch busied herself with cup and leaf.
As they drank the aromatic liquid they explained why they’d come, the girl scowling at the very idea she might need help. She finally interrupted her mother as the tale was coming to the end.
“We would go with her…”
“But they are old and there’s no point. I can look after myself.”
The girl’s father sighed and shrugged helplessly. “So we have come to ask you. Is there anything you can do to keep her safe? A weapon or something?”
The witch shook her head. “I don’t sell weapon or anything that makes it easy to hurt people. But I might be able to get your girl a guardian creature.”
Her parents exchanged a relieved look. “If it will protect our daughter then that would be fantastic.”
The witch gave them a bright smile. “Wait here, I’ll be right back.”
The witch disappeared through a curtain in the back of the room and vanished from sight. Not from hearing though, a couple of bangs, thumps and a loud roar escaped and fled past them. The parents exchanged another look, this one worried, remembering all the bad things they’d heard about witches. The girl, however, sat up straight and looked eagerly towards the door.
After a few moments and a lot more worrying cacophony the witch returned. In her arms was a kitten, a white so pure it was almost glowing, except for a smudge of black on top of its head. It was looking around with curious green eyes that settled almost immediately upon the girl.
The parents exchanged a final look as the kitten was deposited into the girl’s arms and started purring as it was held close. “Is that it?” the father asked.
“That’s it,” the witch replied with an easy smile.
“So when danger appears it’ll grow big and frightening or….?”
“No, it is what it is. This will keep your daughter safe.”
They weren’t sure but there was no arguing with a witch so they thanked her and left.
Over the next week they kept a close watch on the kitten, waiting for it to do something special or dangerous but they waited in vain. The kitten behaved completely normally. It would spend the days darting about the shop, chasing dust or sunbeams, sleeping in comfortable places and yelling for fresh food.
After the week it was time for the girl to go out on her deliveries again. Although they couldn’t see how it would help her parents urged her to take the kitten with her, which she did with joy as she had fallen in love with it. With her cloak, her basket, her backpack, and the kitten she set off.
Everything was fine to begin with. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. The girl had five homes to visit and five houses were visited without a problem. Bag and basket empty she started along the well worn path for home. See, she thought to herself. I knew my parents were over-reacting.
The kitten, who up until then had been sleeping peacefully in the now empty basket, suddenly sat up and started staring off the side of the path. The girl stopped, unsettled by the sudden movement. Then a moment later the kitten pounced from the basket, hit the ground and sprinted into the woods.
“Kitten, wait!” the girl cried. Barely stopping to think about what she was doing she dashed after it.
Through the trees and the underbrush they went, sticks splintering under the girl’s boots, the kitten a seldom seen white blur in front of her. The girl ran faster, not wanting her beloved pet to get lost but after a while she realised that she hadn’t seen the kitten in a while and, despite her intentions, it was now her that was lost. She stopped and tried to make her way back home.
Then suddenly she stumbled into a glade and, looking up, came face to face with the bandits.
There was nothing else they could be. There was no reason for a gang of twenty men to hang out around a fire in the middle of the day, dressed in mismatched armour and clutching weapons. There was a moment where they all just stared at each other. Then the bandits were scrambling to their feet and the girl found herself surrounded and crowded back toward the fire in the centre of the clearing.
“Well what do we have here?” one of the bandits asked. “And what will we do with it?”
Another of them shouldered his way to the front of the group. He was bigger than the rest and his hair hung in a lank ponytail down his back. Judging by the way everyone deferred to him, he was the leader. “You know what we do. We take everything she has,” he growled at the one who had spoken. Then he leered at the girl. “And maybe have some fun with her.”
But the girl had worked in her parents shop since before she could remember and, though she was terrified, she knew how to negotiate. “Sure, you could hurt me,” she said as calmly as she could. “But would that be the most profitable thing to do?”
The bandits were still moving closer to them but their leader, who was the leader for a reason, forced them to back away. Turning to the girl he asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” said the girl, thinking quickly. “I work at my parents shop and they’re very successful. They bring in a lot of money. Every week I have to walk this path and give people groceries. What if I also paid you a small amount as well? Then you would have a consistent income stream, which would benefit you more in the long run.”
The leader thought about it for a moment. “I have to problems with this proposition,” he eventually said.
“What are they?” the girl asked eagerly. They were negotiating! She could do this!
“The first,” the bandit leader said slowly, “is what you said about a small amount. There’s a lot of us, as you can see. I’m not sure a small amount would cover all of us.”
“I can give you more than a small amount,” the girl said. “Tell me what you need and I’ll look into it.”
“Well that brings us into the second concern. Which is, if we let you go now then we don’t get anything for a week. If we even trust you to come back.
“No, what I think we’ll do now is that you’ll lead us to your village and your parents’ successful shop.”
The girl wanted to say no but she didn’t have any choice. So she agreed, picked a direction and started walking
Luckily the bandits weren’t locals and so didn’t know the forest. Knowing this the girl lead them off in the wrong direction, wracking her brains as to what to do next. It was only when a howl split the air that she knew what she had to do.
“What was that?” the leader of the bandits asked.
“Oh, that was just the shepherd’s dogs,” the girl lied. “They can be a bit loud.”
From the look on his face he didn’t buy it. Thankfully he didn’t have to for at that moment the wolves attacked.
The pack crashed through the trees in front of them, running at full pelt. For a moment it looked as if they hadn’t expected the bandits to be there but then they changed direction and charged. The first few bandits fell to their teeth before the rest were able to unsheathe their weapons and charge in.
The sound was devastating. Howls and yells, screams and cries all blended together into an almost physical blow. The girl turned and, leaving it all behind, ran back through the woods, searching once again for her path. She walked for what seemed to be an age before she found herself back in part of the woods she recognised.
The girl finally made it back to the path and there she found the kitten, curled up in a sunbeam. Carefully, she scooped it up and started walking back. It didn’t rouse, just snuggled into her arms and started purring.
As the girl walked to the door to her home she hugged the kitten close and whispered in its ear. “You may not have done anything to help but I love you anyway.”
Granite is formed of three different minerals: quartz, feldspar and mica but it is not any of them. Quartz is light and captures the sun, granite is dull, though it glitters. Feldspar is soluble in water, while granite will just sink. Mica cuts easily into layers while granite is solid, breaking but not splitting. Despite what goes into it, granite is itself. While it might bear attributes of its formation it defines itself by itself.
The knocker knew this, knew all about rocks. His name was Kernowite and, like the rest of his clan, he lived underground, mining the rocks and investigating the movements of the earth. He was happy, in his way, for he found joy in his surroundings, but he was also lonely. He had a large family that spread out through the tunnels but he still felt unfulfilled in some way. The older people of his clan tried to tell him it was natural, that he was young and looking for a way to define himself, but while that made sense it didn’t help. So he decided that if he needed to find something he would.
Every day he would leave his house, a small cave with a beautifully painted green door, and start walking the tunnels that had been carved below the land for generations. He would examine the walls, seeing the sedimentary layers of sandstone, measure the stalactites growth rate in the limestone caves, anything to make a discovery, to be noticed. He knew that what he was looking for would be found somewhere over the clay horizons.
It was as he searched the furthest reaches of the tunnel network that he found the girl.
First he heard the sobbing, echoing past him. He was used to all the sounds of the underground, from the gnawing of worms to the knocking before a collapse, but he’d never heard this before. A bubbling sound, like a river trapped in one place, unable to escape. And yet also like a wildcat, caught in a trap and furious about it. It was only when he rounded the last corner and saw her that he knew what it was.
There must have been a cave in, this tunnel was close to the surface, and she must have fallen in. It wasn’t hard to work this out, by the clumps of soil scattered around and the sunlight stabbing from the roof. The beams of light lay across a human girl, huddled in a sad heap on the floor, and glinted off her bronze hair that was bound tightly back. By her side sat a sheathed sword.
“Hello?” he said, edging round the corner. “Are you ok?”
The girl scrambled up at his voice, pulling out her weapon and pointing it at him with a trembling grip. She towered over him, his head only coming level with her waist. But he didn’t care for the danger, didn’t even notice it. He had eyes only for the blade.
It appeared to be made of bronze, but what the alloy was he couldn’t tell. It shimmered and heat seemed to roll off it. A chemical reaction to the air? Or something else? Something about it called to him, awakening his curiosity.
This was it, he knew. This was the discovery that would give his life meaning.
But first he had to make sure that his life changing discovery didn’t end it.
He held up his hand and stepped back. “Woah, careful there. I don’t mean you any harm.” He tried very hard to sound non-threatening, though he hadn’t met any humans before.
It seemed to work. The sword dropped and was returned to its sheath. “Sorry,” the girl muttered, her voice hoarse.
Kernowite waited for her to say something else but it seemed that was all he was getting. He tried again. “How did you get here?”
She gestured upwards. “I fell.”
Once again he waited for more information but once again it appeared he would be waiting in vain. He found himself at a loss.
He was saved by a rumbling. Not from the roof of the tunnel, signalling further collapse, but from the girl’s stomach.
She looked at him embarrassed but he just smiled at her and pulled out his lunch. “Would you like something to eat?”
She fell upon the meal instantly, not caring if it was poisoned or not. Kernowite watched as his mushroom sandwiches disappeared down her throat and tried to work out his next move. He had to separate her from the sword somehow but she was bigger than him and he didn’t have a weapon. Maybe once she was asleep he could get it? But he couldn’t just leave her here. She could wander off and he might never find her again. Not that it looked like she had anywhere to be.
“Are you lost?” he asked after his lunch had been completely devoured. She looked at him and, again, nodded.
He nodded back at her, relieved. “Why don’t you come home with me then?”
The girl thought about it for a moment then agreed. They walked in silence down the tunnels until they came to the bright green door of his home. She followed him as he opened the door and beckoned her inside.
The inside of every knocker’s home is different. All are hollowed out of the earth, with rooms built on as needs and desire demand. Kernowite had a living room that opened right off his door and three rooms that branched off of that: one for cooking, one for cleaning himself and his belongings and one for sleeping. The living room had a fireplace, with a flue to the surface carved with great care and effort. The rest of the room was covered in rugs and tapestries to soften the hard rock and pride of place was a great couch, facing the fire. Kernowite pointed to it.
“You can sleep here for now.”
The girl nodded then went to sit on it. She towered over him but the roof was still higher than her head, if only just. Not sure what to do the knocker decided to make dinner. When he came back a little bit later he found the girl asleep on the couch, holding her sword tightly like a teddy bear. There was no way to separate the two without waking her, despite how exhausted she was. Kernowite stood and thought about it.
The next day when they were both awake and he’d made breakfast he offered to let her stay with him for a while. She just nodded then went back to eating.
Poor thing has been through something terrible, he thought to himself. But maybe if she stays here for a while she’ll trust me enough that I can get a look at her sword.
A few weeks later and he had to admit that he was wrong. He’d been anxious about inviting the girl to his home but if he didn’t make an effort he barely noticed her. She tended to lurk in corners, her face gradually turning paler while away from the sun above. Occasionally she cried but mostly she just sat, staring at nothing, drained of energy and lost in her thoughts. She’d talk when spoken to but only to answer basic questions. The one time he asked about the sword she’d told him that she made it and nothing more. When he asked her how, exciting to have the maker right there with him to share their process, she clutched it to her and backed away. He immediately apologised and the matter was laid to rest but he could feel it hovering over them for the next few days. There was no way she was going to tell him the secret.
So instead he built her a forge, hollowing out a room in the rock further down the tunnel, closer to the surface and away from his home. He cut in ventilation, worked and traded for an anvil, tools and materials, and had got it all set up while she haunted his home. Then, once it was finished, he just led her there.
“I know it feels like you just want to lie about and do nothing, wallowing in whatever drove you here but that’s not good for you. I thought you might like to start working again.”
She just stared at him and around the room before turning and walking home. But the next day she spent a little time in it, idly fiddling with the tools, examining the anvil. After a week the first tap of a hammer came singing down the corridor to his home. A week after that she’d made a new cooking pot out of bronze and after that there was no stopping her. She spent all her time there, working on one project or another. Despite the fact that he’d built it Kernowite found himself banned from it, but she was keen to show off everything that she worked on. None of them seemed to have been made using the same process of heat infusion as the sword but he couldn’t deny that they were masterfully made.
The girl was changing along with her work. She began to talk more, never about anything important but about life in the lands above. She would make jokes and occasionally burst into song. He would, in turn, tell her all about the rocks and minerals that made up their underground realm, how to identify them and what their different properties were. The home became cosier and Kernowite found himself waiting each day for her to come back and show him what she’d made.
He began cutting out a new room of their home, just for her. He’d spend the days on it while the girl worked in the forge, making her own tools, knives, and little trinkets. They passed the time companionably, growing closer together.
Then, finally, she told him of how she’d come to be there.
The tale came in short, halting sentences. She talked about deer, about monsters who had invaded her village and how she’d dealt with them, becoming a monster in turn. By the end she was sitting in the middle of the floor, holding the sheathed sword close to her and sobbing. Kernowite stood watching, unsure of how to comfort her. Finally he leaned over and wrapped his arms around her.
“I’m so sorry that happened,” he told her. “I wish you’d never been put in that position.”
She nodded, swallowed her tears then got to shakily to her feet. “Well, now you know so I’ll be going.”
He frowned at her. “Why?”
“You’re not throwing me out? You don’t think I’m evil?”
He drew back so she could see the astonishment on his face. “Of course not! You made a mistake, yes, but it was a mistake. You aren’t defined by what you do at any one point. If you continued to kill people that would be wrong but you won’t. I hope.”
He felt he was making a mess of this but kept talking, hoping he could express what he meant in the avalanche of words.
“The things you did were evil but that doesn’t make you evil. You obviously regret it and aren’t going to do it again. As long as you try to be better than that, to help people instead of hurt them, which you do, how could you possible be evil?
He looked up at her helplessly, hoping that he wasn’t making everything worse. He expected her to break back into tears or yell at him or something. Instead she said the last thing he expected.
“Would you like to see how I made my sword?”
He swallowed, then nodded. “Yes please.”
“Ok,” she smiled at him. “I’ll show you.”
He would have expected some preparation, some gathering of exotic ingredients but she just got up and walked right to the smithy. He followed as she started shovelling coals into the forge, turning and asking, “I’m going to make a hammer, if that’s ok?”
He nodded, beside himself with excitement. Then she began, Kernowite watching closely so see how her method differed and got the necessary reaction.
First she heated the forge, piling the coals high and pumping air into the centre until it glowed hot.
She took some bars of bronze from where they sat at the wall. He’d been there when they’d made them and knew that they were pretty standard bronze, mostly copper with some tin. Was it a way of heating them?
The bars were placed into the forge until they were soft and pliable. But nothing unusual happened until she pulled them out and placed them on the anvil. Was it some sort of technique in beating them?
The hammer rang on the bronze beating it into shape but, though the girl was talented, it was just like watching any other blacksmith.
What could be different?
Then she reached up and cut off a bit of her hair.
He stared in horror as she dropped it onto the hot metal, beating it into the bronze with concentration and focus. Soon a bronze hammer appeared, with a heat that would last long after the dousing, and he knew it was a fine tool. But it didn’t matter.
“What do you think?” she asked, gazing at him with a pride that slipped away when she saw his expression. “What’s the matter?”
“Magic,” he said bitterly. “All this time it was magic. I thought it was some new property of metal, something that would help us all. But no, just a quirk of nature.”
“Does that matter?” the girl asked haltingly.
“Of course it matters! I thought I could replicate it, duplicate it! This was supposed to be my big break, the discovery that was going to change my life. It could have changed society! But instead it’s just a trick done by a little girl.”
The words felt wrong as they came out, hurtful and poisonous, but once said words cannot be unsaid. The girl looked at him, then turned and ran from the forge. Kernowite stared after her and tried to sort out his feelings.
They were all jumbled inside of him, like a pile of rocks dumped at the entrance to a mine. So he did what he always did with rocks; grade, examine and order them. In this pile went the anger. After all he’d put into the girl, looking after her and caring for her, he got nothing from it. In another went guilt. He’d said things that he hadn’t really meant and had hurt her.
He paused after that. Had he really not meant it? He dug deeper into the guilt, cracking some of the rocks open to see the crystals within. He thought about the time they’d spent together, the joy he’d come from having her around. Then he looked again at the two piles next to each other.
And the pile of guilt was much bigger than the pile of anger.
It was only then that he saw what he had lost. But maybe there was a way to get it back?
He had to make this right. After stopping off at his home to pick some things up, he took a deep breath then went searching. Finally, many hours later, he found her again where he’d found her once before, at the end of the tunnels, lying in a ball around her sword and sobbing. He walked over to her, tapping her on the shoulder until she looked up at him with red rimmed eyes.
“This is sand,” he said, pouring the grains into a heap on the ground. She looked at it and then at him, confusion plain on her face. It only grew as he dropped a rock on top of the pile. “And this is sandstone. Sand becomes sandstone.”
“Hence the name.” Her eyes were still red but he felt a spark of warmth inside him. At least she was talking to him.
“Hence the name. Sandstone takes time and lots of pressure to become sandstone. It’s still made up on the same minerals but it’s different. So that’s why…”
“Why is it always about minerals and rocks with you?” the girl shouted, suddenly angry. He took a step back as she rose up in front of him. “It’s all you care about! When I thought…” her rage was interrupted by a sob and she crumpled down again. “I thought you cared about me.”
“Do you think the sand knows when it becomes sandstone?”
She shot another look at him. “What?”
“Sand spends all that time changing but I think that it doesn’t know it. I bet it doesn’t even know that it’s become sandstone. But one day, something happens and its reactions change. Then it realises that it’s become something new. I know that’s what it was like with me.”
He sat down across from her, the sand and the sandstone between them. “I invited you into my home to try and discover more about that sword and the metal that makes it up. I’m not going to lie to you about that or try and change the past. But it is the past. You are more precious to me than any metal ever could be and I’m so sorry it took me this long to realise that.
“You can leave, if you want, and I’ll do everything I can to make sure you can set off safe and well, to a good place. But if you still want to, you can stay with me. And no matter what you decide, you’ll always be welcome here. And… and I’d love to adopt you as my daughter.”
She looked at him, he looked back and for a terrible moment the future seemed uncertain. Then, hesitantly, one hand still gripping the sword, she asked, “You’d really want me as your daughter? Despite everything I’ve done, all the people I’ve hurt?”
He looked back, trying to show with his eyes how serious he was, how much he loved her. “Of course.”
Then the sword was tumbling through the air, and her arms were around him, holding him tight as it clattered behind her. They were both weeping and Kernowite felt his heart fill.
Eventually they drew apart and stared at each other. The silence was a precious thing that he didn’t want to break, unsure of what would happen next. In the end the girl was the first to speak. “So what would it mean to become your daughter?”
Kernowite smiled. “We’d give you a new name and you’d become part of my family.”
“A name?” She looked at him suspiciously. “What sort of name?”
“We’re named for the rocks and minerals we most resemble.”
“So why are you called Kernowite?”
“It’s green, like my eyes. There’s a little bit of iron in it and a little bit of poison. But it’s not as hard as other minerals.”
She sighed. “I guess my name will be Bronze.”
He laughed, he couldn’t help it. “Of course not.”
The look of confusion that flitted across her face forced him to explain. “Bronze is a metal, hard and unchanging. Oh, sure, you can beat it into a different shape but you’re nothing like that. You’re clay.”
“Clay is useful. You can make lots of things from it. It’s adaptable and can change to it’s surroundings. No man is metal, stuck as one thing. There’s lots more to us than that. Look at how much you’ve changed since you’ve come down here. And you can always change, again and again, into whatever you want to me.”
“So what should my name be?”
He looked at her and smiled. “How about Kaolinite?”
She hugged him again, tightly. “Kaolinite it is.”
As she held him tight, tears streaming down both their faces, Kernowite couldn’t help but think how lucky he was. He had found a life changing discovery after all. He had found a daughter.
Kernowite was happy after that. He and his daughter lived and worked together, in the forge, and finishing up cutting out her new room. He was so proud of her, of how she took every day as an opportunity to learn something new, and he took great joy in telling her all about the rocks and minerals that made up her new home. But, like clay, he couldn’t help but see how she was changing. She was growing up, getting taller, broader, and the roof that had once been above her head was now a constant hazard. She had to walk carefully, making sure not to bump into the ceiling or the walls.
Eventually the day that he’d been dreading came. Kaolinite came to him, looking solemn. “I’ve got to go,” she told him. “Thank you for all you’ve done for me but I need to stretch my legs, go out in the world where I belong. If you’re ok with me leaving?”
He just smiled and presented her with the travel satchel and tools that he’d bought not long after accepting her as his daughter.
“You’re always welcome here,” he told her and they hugged, both of them weeping just like when they’d first found each other. And then she was gone and he was once again alone.
Years passed unnoticed in the dark. He kept busy, still scouting the tunnels, still working in the forge that they’d built together. He missed his daughter terribly but he came to accept it. I told her to be clay, he thought, to be change and to mould herself to her circumstances. I did the best I could.
She was out there and she was happy. That’s all that matters.
And then, one day, there was a knock on his door. A warning of catastrophe, he thought, going to answer it. Or just a nosy neighbour?
It was neither. His daughter stood there, fidgeting nervously beside a woman wrapped in furs and a small girl with floating, white hair.
“We needed to go where the storm couldn’t find us. Can we stay here for a while?”
Kernowite stood there for a moment, taking her in. She’d somehow managed to grow even taller, her face was more weathered and she was dressed differently. But her eyes still shone and in her expression he could see that, even if somethings had changed, she was still the same.
Moreover he could feel the connection that had formed between the three of them. The way that Kaolinite kept smiling reassuringly at the woman in the furs, who stood as if alone against the world but who held the young girl’s hand tightly through her gloves. The girl, who keep staring at the ground but would occasionally look around, a bright spark in her eyes. Three people, so different, joined together and making something more.
A family of granite.
His smile was a crevasse, almost splitting his face. “Of course, of course, come in!” he cried, seizing Kaolinite and guiding her inside. The others followed and he closed the door behind them.
There were practical questions to address, how they’d all fit into his home, whether he’d have to start working on more rooms and how long they’d be staying there but he didn’t care. For the moment there was movement, hugs, dragging chairs closer to the fire, pulling out mugs of tea and biscuits, introductions. Problems would come later, for the moment there was only joy.
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.
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.
There once was a village out on the plains. It was small, as these things go, filled with farmers, an inn and a blacksmith. The residents mostly stayed there for their whole lives, with few leaving and fewer outsiders arriving. Spread around it was the farms and around those vast expanses of grass ran to a horizon that seemed so far away. The village had no name and only one road, that wound from one side of the world to the other and cut through the village like a sword thrust.
This is a story about a little boy who lived just outside the village in his parents farm. Like most of the inhabitants of the village there was nothing special about him, no in-built destiny. He looked the same as those around him, hair within the variances of brown, eyes a blue like his parents, skin a healthy tan. He wasn’t stronger than other boys his age, he wasn’t smarter. There was only one thing that set him apart and that was his curiosity.
There was one way the village differed from others. In a tower on top of a nearby hill The Storm King lived. He was rarely seen, preferring to keep to himself within. The villagers would make deliveries of their crops to the tower and do their best to keep him happy. Because when he flew into a rage, and anything could set him off, the wind began to blow and storm clouds blotted the sky. Thunder would roll and lightning would flash.
The boy was fascinated with the King and would often sneak away to his tower to spy on him. Whenever his parents found out they would tell him off, warning him to stay away. “Don’t make the Storm King angry with you,” they told him. “Some storms cannot be weathered.” Then they’d put him to work, weeding their muskmelon patch or feeding the goats. But he wouldn’t listen and at the next opportunity he would go again.
Familiarity builds contempt and, though they would scold him every time he came back, the boy’s parents began to get more relaxed. “He’s not doing anything wrong,” they would tell each other. “If the Storm King was going to get angry, surely he would have already?” Though they wouldn’t tell him it had begun to be a point of pride to them. “Look at our son. See how brave he is!”
So the day that the boy angered the Storm King caught them by surprise. They ignored the warning signs, of the clouds slowly gathering over the distant needle of the tower, of the sunlight beginning to fade. They continued their work, taking care of their crops and pegging up the laundry on the lawn where the goats grazed. Even if they had noticed they had no reason to suspect it was because of their son.
Until the boy came sprinting out of their neighbour’s field of maize, his footfalls echoing with the roar of the thunder. By this time the sky was black as pitch and they’d had to hurriedly take in the washing and house the goats in the outhouse. The boy ran up to them and into the house, slamming the door behind him. They looked at his panicked face and knew at once that he was to blame. “What did you do?” they asked him. But the boy wouldn’t answer.
For the rest of the day and late into the night the storm raged. The villagers all cowered in fear in their homes, wondering what had set the Storm King off. Only the boy knew and no matter how often his parents asked him he wouldn’t tell. Finally dawn’s light broke through the cloud as the storm blew itself out. The villagers all breathed a sigh of relief and got back to their lives. They’d lived through the storms before and would do so again.
But this time was different.
The boy stayed inside for the next two days and his parents let him. It wasn’t wise to go outside after angering the King and so they made him clean their house from top to bottom, sweep out all the dust the storm had blown inside and fix the holes the wind had howled through. On the third day they sent him into town to trade their goat’s milk for some eggs.
As soon as he stepped outside there was a change in the air, a sharpening and a tension as if someone had suddenly started paying attention. He was halfway to the village before the rainclouds covered the sun and he had to run back, the milk sloshing in his bucket. His parents gathered him and the goats into the home and locked it up tight.
This storm was less ferocious than the previous one. The rain sheeted down but the lightning only occasionally flashed, the thunder wandering among the hills and plains, booming from here and there. As if it were searching for something.
His parents tried to laugh it off as a coincidence. People had annoyed the Storm King before but, though his vengeance was swift, it was usually brief. You weathered the storm and that was an end of it. The Storm King didn’t hold a grudge.
But this time was different.
Just in case they kept the boy inside for a week. He want sent down into the cellar, where he sorted through the old sacks of half rotten vegetables and the broken remembrances of days past. By the end of the week his back was sore from spending so long bent over and cobwebs netted his hair. But the cellar was sparkling clean and his parents felt it was safe for him to go outside again.
The boy was handed a shovel and sent to muck out the goats, a task that took him an hour. Then he washed in the water butt, cleansing himself of the dust of the past week, before going to help with the weeding. He made no loud noises, nor strayed far from the house. And still it was just past midday that the clouds came rolling in again.
Once again the family dashed to the house and once again the storm was mild, as such things went. But this time the booms of thunder were nearer and the lightning flashed between the shutters. The boy quaked with every peal but otherwise remained silent. His parents looked at him, concerned. It was getting harder to tell themselves that the Storm King wasn’t looking for their son.
“What did you do to upset the Storm King so?” they asked but still the boy wouldn’t tell them.
His parents feared what would happen when the King found their son. This time, they decided, the boy needed to stay inside for a month. After all, the Storm King would have forgotten whatever he did by then.
A month inside is tough on a boy of any age or disposition. This boy, who was used to running through fields with his friends and working long hours beside his parents, was especially despondent. His parents put him in charge of all house chores, cooking, cleaning, mending, fixing, and, while that helped, his endless horizons had still been replaced by four close walls. His legs grew weaker, his skin grew paler and his eyes grew accustomed to candles or sunlight through glass.
Eventually though the month past and he was allowed outside. Now he would be safe. Never before had the Storm King been angry a month, a week and three days after.
But this time it was different.
And the stormclouds began forming within an hour.
The parents looked at each other. What could they do? Their son couldn’t live in the house forever, never going outside. They had tried running from the problem. Now they had to face it.
They gathered the goats inside, because hope is never a replacement to caution. Then, baring the door so the boy couldn’t slip inside, the family waited as the storm approached. Closer and closer it crept, the air hazing from golden yellow to purple. Finally it was upon them.
Lightning flashed overhead, thunder cracked.
The Storm King came.
The clouds above, black as a bruise, black as broken love, started circling around the hill the house was built on. The sky briefly appeared above them, light blue and unreachable, before the clouds slammed together and down with a clap. They impacted the hill before the family and within it a shape formed.
The Storm King was of nature and such things are impossible to properly describe. Yes, he was tall but it was the vastness of a cloud in the sky. His beard was bushy and Cumulonimbus. His eyes were St Elmos fire, his mouth a crack of tempestuousness, his voice a gale. His anger was static, sparks of it jumping around him. His attention, when it settled on the family, was landfall.
Was it the being before them speaking or was it the very air around them? There was no way of telling. The boy quaked but didn’t falter. Instead he took a deep breath, the fury in the air filling his lungs, and stepped forward.
“Me,” he said, small, quiet but dauntless.
“You broke into my house. You took what wasn’t yours.”
His parents fall back in shock. “You stole from the Storm King?” They asked the boy. He looked at them and nodded.
“It was mine,” the Storm King raged. “Mine. I made it, I owned it. You stole it.”
“You made her, but you weren’t worthy of her,” the boy replied. “So I took her back.”
Another crack of thunder lit the air. The Storm King towered over them, then bent down and glared at the boy. “Return it to me! Now!”
“I can’t,” the boy said. “I gave her away and now she’s where you’ll never find her.”
The clouds, that had been circling the hill like sharks, stopped for one, heavy moment. The Storm King’s eyes narrowed.
“Then suffer in its place.”
Then the man was gone. But the storm, and the rage, remained.
The family barely made it into the house before the first flash and boom filled the air. The goats huddled in a corner, some climbing onto the beds, and has to be wrestled down into the cellar. Because there was no question that they needed into the cellar, the house was shaking and the storm had only just begun. Finally they got the last nanny in there and shut the trapdoor.
Thunder rolled like a drum, lightning was as constant as candlelight. The hill shook, struck by forces rarely unleashed. Night, turned into day, turned into night, indistinguishable from each other and their passing was only noted by the oil lamps being refilled and the feeding of the goats.
There was no natural reason for this. They all knew what this was. Rage, fury, vast and untapped, vented upon them.
But even the anger of the storm is not endless. Eventually the constant barrage of flash and thunder slowed and stopped. The howling wind blew the storm heads to bits and rays of sun finally poked through.
They crept up from below, followed by the goats. The house was a wreck. The windows had been blown in, glass and shutters vanished to never be seen again. The door could be found sunk into the table, the two joined like lovers. The chimney was a tumble of fallen stone. But outside the sun beckoned.
The boy took a trembling step outside into the light, the smell of renewal thick in the air. The onslaught of the storm had changed him and his hair had turned a thick, shining silver. His parents stood with him and together they looked at their farm.
The storm had wrought changes. The lawn, once kept neat by the goats, was wild and knee high. The muskmelons had swollen to huge sizes. The shed and outbuildings were gone, as was the clothes and the line. In places the ground had been rent down to the bedrock, generations of soil stripped away. A trickling stream that hadn’t existed before bubbled quietly past the base of the hill.
“Well?” his parents asked him. “This is what happens when you steal from the Storm King. Was it worth it?”
The boy looked around, a ringing in his ears that would never go away. Finally, he replied. “Yes.”
Trigger Warning: There’s some upsetting scenes with an animal in pain and some gore.
There was once a couple who wanted a baby very much. They lived together in a village nestled deep within the Greatwoods, he as a blacksmith and she as a weaver. Theirs was a happy home, full of laughter and colour and, in their mind, the only thing that could make it better was to have a child of their own. They were both healthy and were sure that their union would be blessed before much time had passed.
But as the years went on, they got older and yet no child appeared. They began to despair.
Around this time in the Heartwood where the trees grew close together there lived a witch. Witches weren’t allowed in the village, for they were said to have fae and uncanny powers. Never make a deal with a witch, the saying went, for you never truly know what they will take in return. But the hurt and sick of the village, those who were able, would creep out there anyway. And the blacksmith and his wife were desperate. So off they went.
The witch was not the old bitter crone they were expecting but younger than them, with skin brown as the bark of the trees and glossy black hair. She greeted them cheerily and hustled them into the house where she lived. In short order they were seated across from her, holding cups of tea they feared to drink. “How can I help?” she asked.
“We want to have a child but can’t have one,” they told her. She thought about it for a spell then started rummaging around on her shelves while encouraging them to drink their tea. Eventually she pulled out a bottle that gleamed like the sun.
“Drink a spoonful of this three times a day, at dawn, noon and sunset,” she told them. “It should help. But be aware, there are side effects.”
“What are they?” asked the blacksmith, though he had to keep his hands clenched together to stop from grabbing for the small vial.
“Making life is powerful magic,” the witch replied. “There’s a good chance that the child will be special and have powers.”
This was a problem but not an insurmountable one. Children with strange powers were rare but not unheard of. There was a couple in the village with a boy whose eyes were blood red. He had the ability to find flowers even in the depths of winter. But still they didn’t take the potion. There was one final question that had to be asked.
“What’s the price?” the weaver asked.
The witch smiled sadly. “The same as with any child. You love them no matter what or you lose them.”
They didn’t believe her but their need for a child was greater than their distrust. So they took the bottle and left the witch and their mugs of tea, still undrunk, behind them.
That evening, as the sun was dipping below the horizon, the weaver went to her husband as he was pouring out the potion into a spoon. The glow of the potion threw light up at his face, revealing crags and shadows that should not have been there. He saw her standing there and confessed.
“I’m scared,” the blacksmith told his wife, handing her the spoon. “What if it’s like the witch said? What if our baby is different?”
The weaver looked him straight in his eyes and swallowed the measure whole. The glow travelled down her throat and disappeared. “Then like she said, we will love it, no matter what.”
And so, in time, a young girl was eventually born to them. From the start it was obvious that this girl was different. Physically she was normal but she was already born with a thick head of hair, a most beautiful bronze colour, not the black of the weaver or the brown of the blacksmith. The couple fell in love with her immediately. They agreed not to tell her about the witch, as that would just confuse her they felt. Instead they kept a close watch on her to see what she would become and named her Eos, for the dawn when she’d been born.
But despite their fears Eos grew up normal. She cried as a baby. She tottered along, fell and got back up again as a toddler. By the time she was ten her parents had almost forgotten about the witch’s warning. To them Eos was the perfect daughter, strong with clear skin, bright brown eyes and long hair that had never been cut.
Well, almost perfect.
The weaver desired nothing more than to pass her craft onto her daughter, like her mother had before her. She wanted to sit with her, the shuttlecock of the loom rattling backward and forwards before them while colour flowed through their hands. But Eos didn’t care for sitting and working. She would run off to the woods with her friends, climbing trees and fording streams. The only time that she could be persuaded to sit still was at night, when her mother would tell her stories, of knights and warriors, of chivalry and honour, of fighting against all odds and defeating the evil. Then her eyes would grow round as saucers, their light blue shining from under her glistening fringe. But such stillness was always temporary and when the next day dawned she would again escape to the green of the trees, fighting the imaginary dragons that lived there.
The only other place that held her interest was in her father’s forge. The warmth, the crashing of hammer on anvil, the sparks that danced like fairies in the light from the furnace, the sound of metal on metal that she imagined to be like the sound of a knights’ duel. It drew her in and whenever she had the chance she snuck off to stare in amazement at her father at work. He often let her be, happy to spend time with her and occasionally mesmerised at the way the light would play off her bronze hair.
One day, while he was making a knife for a woodcutter in the village, Eos crept in unseen. Attracted by the glowing shape she leaned over the anvil then tripped and almost fell face first onto it. Luckily her father managed to see and grab her just in time but the damage was done. Her fringe brushed forward.
The hair fell on the hot metal and immediately a change came about the as yet unborn blade. Light shimmered on it and an even greater heat arose. The blacksmith, after depositing her daughter safely on the ground stared at it in amazement. Then he called his wife to take Eos and set to work.
Long into the night the crash of hammer and metal could be heard from his hut. Eos fussed at being kept away but eventually went to bed. Finally, he emerged. The metal had proved easier to work and when he showed the knife to his wife it flickered as if fire had been caught within it.
“This must be the power the witch talked about,” he whispered. She reluctantly agreed.
Clearly Eos had a calling for metal and so on that day her father took her as his apprentice. Her hair was bound tightly back in a braid, the singed fringe cut short. She was bright and eager, ready to work beside her father. She was less eager when he told her to start shovelling coal. For the next year she was given hard and backbreaking work to do, from tending to the furnace to hauling the items her father had finished to their new owners. Gradually though, the blacksmith started to show her how to do things, how to properly melt the metal, how to shape it. How to take the riches of the earth and create. Eos loved it and dedicated all her time to it. By the time she was in her early teens she was as good a blacksmith as her father, though she preferred to work with bronze to his iron. Though usually bronze would be weaker she added small bits of her hair to it, giving it greater strength and unusual properties. Her creations would always be hot, summer life flowing through them. He would caution her against it. “Eos,” he would say. “You’ve been given a great gift but you must be carefully. Use it sparingly or others will hear about it and start demanding things from you.” But she wouldn’t listen, taking joy in making things that only she could make.
Finally what her father feared came to pass. A message came from a dutchy by the sea, addressed to her father. They had heard of her powers and thought them his. With the message came a crate of cloths and silks and a request to make a large metal bucket, to heat water past boiling point.
The Blacksmith wanted to refuse, but Eos laughed. “It’s just a bucket, what harm could it do?” she asked. And she set to work.
It took her a week to make the bucket and she poured her heart and talent into it. By the end it stood up to a grown man’s knee, as wide across as an arm. The edges of the rim were etched into pressed seashells and waves encircled the base. The handles were of carved red heartwood and the inside shimmered constantly with heat. On the base Eos put her mark, a rising sun, so everyone would know that it was her who made it. The messenger took it, thanked the Blacksmith for his work, and left delighted.
But though it was beautiful still Eos felt disappointed. Is this the limit to what I can make? she asked herself. At the end of the day it’s still a just a bucket.
A few months passed when the second messenger appeared. From the frozen north he came, with reindeer horns and skins, asking for a knife that could slay winter. Once again he came to her father and once again he wanted to refuse. But Eos was caught by the idea. Here at least was her stories come to life, surely?
For a fortnight she slaved away at the forge. By the end the knife lay shining on the reindeer skin she’d spread under it. The sheath was wood, padded on the inside with some of her mothers weavings. The hilt was iron with the rising sun worked into the design, cool to the touch and the blade was of a leaf, the veins taking the place of the fuller, shining with the power of summer and her hair. The messenger thanked her father profusely, and left with it, to return to the north.
But though it was deadly, Eos was still disappointed. It’s a powerful blade, she thought to herself, but it’s still just a knife.
What she wanted more than anything was to make a sword. A magic sword, just like the ones in her favourite stories, one none could stand against.
Which was when the third messenger arrived.
This one wasn’t from some far away place. Instead it was from the local duke, the one who owned the lands. He had heard of the blacksmith’s work as well. His messenger was clothed in red and green and announced by a quartet of trumpets. They brought with them a chest full of gold and a request for the blacksmith to come to his castle and make for him a glorious sword. Eos was delighted.
But though this was what she finally wanted to work on, her parents put their foot down. They sent the messengers away with a refusal and then sat Eos down.
“A sword isn’t like a bucket or a knife,” her father told her. “Those are tools that can be used for many things. This is a weapon. It’s only purpose is to hurt people. We can’t allow you to make it.”
Eos fumed at them and stalked off to the forge. After all she didn’t need to have an order to make a sword. She could make one herself.
For the next three days she locked herself inside the smithy and worked day and night. She started on the hilt, carving it out of reindeer horn while she thought up the design for the blade itself. Finally, as she was wrapping it in some of the cloth from the sea it came upon her. And she would have started on it straight away if she had not been interrupted by the fourth request.
Unlike the previous messages this one was not brought by a human but by a raven who winged through an open window bearing a tightly furled scroll in its beak and a pouch in its feet. Eos blinked at such a surprising sight and unrolled the scroll to find a request like no other. A wizard from the west, requesting that she make, of all things, a bronze heart.
Eos stared at it for a while, surprised but intrigued. She still wanted to make the sword, yes, but this…this would be a challenge unlike any other. She felt it calling out to her from the paper and she decided that she would take on this request.
Then, the passion of creation having left her, she collapsed on the spot. It is not wise to stay up for three nights and it will take its toll.
She woke up, in her bed, her father having found her and carried her there the night before. The afternoon sunlight shone from the window and, as she sat up, she could see that a plate of bread and cheese had been left out for her. She sat down, cut herself a wedge and started to think about the new project.
The first problem, as she saw it was that, unlike a knife, bucket or sword, she was not familiar with a heart. She didn’t know how they worked or what they looked like when they did.
So she finished her late breakfast and went to find Vlasis.
Vlasis was one of her friends with whom she’d gone adventuring into the forest. But while she had given that up for the forge he had stayed in the trees, learning the ways of the animals that lived there and hunting them. If she wanted to see a heart then he was the place to go.
Vlasis was sitting outside his smoking hut, eating an apple, his face shaded by the wide brim of his hat. He could usually be found around the village, helping to repair houses or replace roofs. But he’d recently caught something in his traps so he had to preserve the meat. He looked up at Eos when she arrived and grinned at her.
“Eos! I haven’t seen you in ages! Have you come for some meat?”
She returned the smile. He looked good, his long limbs stretching out at odd angles but looking comfortable none the less. “Sort of,” she replied and then explained. “I need to see a heart.”
“I’ve got one inside,” he said, raising to his feet and throwing away the apple core. “Come and see.”
“No, you don’t understand,” she said. “I need to see a beating heart.” And she explained about her task.
“I usually try and kill the animal as soon as possible, so it doesn’t suffer. None of my traps would work for this.” He scratched his head and thought for a bit. “I’ve got to keep an eye on this meat while it smokes anyway. Come back in a few days and I’ll have thought of something.”
She thanked him and left, drifting back to the forge. With nothing else to do she started work on the blade of the sword. The design was still in her head and, through heating, beating and folding, she crystalised it into the metal in front of her, adding her hair in large quantities. It shone once she was done, five days later, and needed only to be fixed to the hilt to be complete.
But first she needed to finish the heart.
Vlasis was waiting for her when she returned, a pair of shovels leaning against the wall next to a backpack. “Eos! I was just coming to find you! I’ve worked out the details of the trap we’ll need. You just have to help me set it up.”
He tossed her the backpack and a shovel, both of which were quite heavy, and after he grabbed the second one they set out.
Deep into the woods they went, where humans seldom ventured. At first the two of them chatted happily away but as the trees grew close together their voices dwindled until they walked in silence. Finally Vlasis held up a hand, signalling that they should stop. “My traps are near here,” he told Eos seriously. “Be very careful where you put your feet.”
They crept carefully forward, step by careful step. Whenever they got near to a trap Vlasis would point it out and describe how it worked, though the description would usually end with ‘and then they get impaled with a wooden stake.’ Eos took careful note of their positions and made sure her steps were extra delicate.
Then the trees opened up into a large meadow. The grass was short and sprinkled with the scattered jewels of flowers. A stream ran through a corner of it. Vlasis walked over to a patch a little beyond the treeline, looked around then nodded to himself.
“We’re going to dig a pit and try and catch a deer,” he told her. “It’s going to have to be deep so that it can’t get out, which is why you’re here. I need some strong arms.”
“Well I’ve got those,” Eos flexed her biceps to prove it and Vlasis laughed.
“More than me anyway.”
He took out a knife that Eos recognised as one she had made years ago, and cut out the turf, tearing away strips of it until he’d exposed a large patch of earth. Pacing out a square not quite as big as the space he indicated to Eos and they started digging.
And hauling the dirt away into the forest, scattering it around so it wasn’t obvious.
The sun was low in the sky and Eos had been digging on her own for an hour by the time Vlasis said it was deep enough. She hauled herself out, needing a hand to do so for it was already past her shoulders, and turned to see what the hunter had been doing. He’d taken the strips of turf and laid them over a delicate framework of twigs. She helped him lay it over the pit, perfectly disguising it.
“So the deer will step on it…”
“…and fall in, I get it. I’m not a mighty hunter like you but I understand how it works.”
He grinned at her again then got a torch out of the backpack. “Do you remember where the traps are?”
She nodded as he lit the torch, smoke billowing out of it. “Good. Then you can lead the way while I take care of our scent trail.”
Walking back was much different. Eos couldn’t take her eyes of the ground, afraid at every step that the traps would spring into action, that spears would rush from the trees and stab into her. But they made it through, Vlasis waving the torch around, and safely got out.
Only to return in two days. Once again they stepped carefully around the traps and came out into the meadow. The pit gaped before them, triggered by something. They stalked carefully over and looked into the hole. A deer looked back fearfully.
“So what do you need me to do?” Vlasis asked.
“I need you to cut it open and then hold it still so I can see it’s heart beating.”
The man looked surprised. “While it’s still alive? That isn’t going to be pleasant.”
But he got into the pit anyway. He looked up at his friend one last time, then pulled out his that she’d made knife and cut.
Eos hadn’t known that deer could scream.
The noise was unearthly. Blood sprayed into the air as Vlasis dropped his weapon and grappled with the animal, positioning it until Eos could see into the caping wound where part of the creature had used to be. The deer cried out again and Eos almost threw up. But she forced herself to lean closer and to look at the heart, pumping away behind it’s cage of bone. In and out. In and out. Glistening Finally she nodded. “I’ve got all I…”
She couldn’t even finish the sentence before her knife was in Vlasis’ hand. Gliding gently across the deer’s neck, the red pouring out, the deer’s struggles growing weaker before finally stopped, the heart stilled. The hunter looked down at his prey, a dark look on his face.
“Never ask me to do something like that again. That was…that was evil.”
Eos couldn’t find it in her to disagree. Whatever the heart was going to be used for, she hoped it was worth it.
Meanwhile, back at the village, the blacksmith opened the door to a knock. Outside stood a messenger of the duke, the same as before, once again bringing a message. This time though he didn’t bring gifts, only sharp words, demanding that the blacksmith come to work for the duke at once. The blacksmith once again declined and the messenger left, but this time with a warning.
“The duke is not a man you want to displease. It would be better for you, for all of you, if you were to come to his castle.”
The blacksmith thanked the man and closed the door. He exchanged looks with the weaver, who had heard it all. They knew that they’d have to talk to Eos about this.
But when the door next opened and admitted Eos he found he couldn’t. She was covered in blood and her eyes were shocked and distant. As the weaver fussed around her and the blacksmith started heating buckets of water for a bath he decided not to tell her. After all, what was a blacksmith to a duke? A bare passing thought, most likely.
That night Eos lay in bed, staring up at the ceiling, the screams of the deer still echoing in her head. More than anything she wanted to forget the day, pretend that it had never happened.
But she had seen a heart beating and her mind worked through that, how she could replicate it. A pump, that’s all it was. But a pump for life.
Eos took the knowledge into the forge and created. It took all her skill and no small amount of her magic, making the bronze thin enough it could expand and contact while not so thin that it would break. She saw the finished product in her mind and brought it forth, an act of pure creation. Finally it was done, to the specifications the wizard asked for. It lay shining in her hands, just waiting to start work.
She gave it to the raven, who had spent the past month hanging around the village, and then turned back to her sword. It was sitting there, just waiting to be assembled, the bronze gleaming with power, the hilt sure in the hand, the scabbard already assembled. She imagined holding it, the strength it held.
The blood it would bring.
And she knew that she couldn’t do it. She could not let this sword out into the world. How could she know that it would be used for good, to fight monsters, and not to hurt the innocent?
She thought that she’d be more ashamed but at its heart creation is about discovery and she had just discovered an edge to her, a limitation. It was uncomfortable, as all such truths are, but freeing, to get to know herself more. At that moment she knew exactly what to do.
She finished assembling the sword, as there wasn’t much left to do and it wasn’t her way to leave a task half finished, and slid it into the scabbard. Then she went again into the woods.
Past the traps she got to the meadow. Where there had been a hole before now there was just a patch of bare soil, where they’d filled in the pit, so that it couldn’t hurt anything again. With her hands she dug down, creating a shallow impression that she slung the sword into before covering it. Let the soul of the deer sleep with the treasure.
No more violence, no more swords, she thought to herself as she left, the sun low in the sky.
But when she returned the village was full of men with swords and violence.
Twenty they were, dressed in the duke’s colours and there was the duke himself, directing them as they pulled people from their homes and beat them towards a cage in the middle of the village square. Nobody resisted, or at least not for long, and then there was her father, thrown to his knees before the duke. Eos hovered there, on the very edge of the village, not sure whether to help or to flee. But she hesitated too long and the decision was made for her.
“That’s the blackmith’s apprentice,” one of them cried. “Get her!”
Five of the men sprinted towards her and she turn and ran. The duke watched her go then turned back to her father, already forgetting about her.
And what was a little girl to a duke?
Eos had grown up running through these woods and the men wore armour besides, so she should have lost them easily. But shock is a wound all of its own and she couldn’t get the images out of her head, of her village, captive. Abused.
Anger rose in her. How dare they? How dare they hurt innocent people?
She was the only one free. She had to save them. She had to be a hero.
She changed direction. First though she had to deal with the ones on her tail.
Man is, after all, an animal like any other and traps that worked on deer and boar work as well on them.
The screams echoing in her ears she reached the site of the pitfall. With her hands she started scraping away the loose soil that she’d put there just a few hours before. Finally, weapon in hand she turned to where the soldiers still writhed, impaled on the spears.
A moment later the screams cut off.
Sword in hand, night in the sky, she returned to the village.
Fifteen still remained but the village was spread out and half of them were asleep, confident in the strength of their cage and their right to be there. Eos crept through her home, blade bright and awake in her hands, slipping into the inn, that the soldiers had taken for their own. She found them splayed out on tables, stinking of stolen ale. And sword in hand, she made sure that they never awoke.
She had to move fast now, blood had been spilled and it wouldn’t take long before her presence was noticed. She slunk out the back door, towards the forge. The guard at the door saw her at the last minute and gave a cry but she was already swinging towards him. It was a sloppy cut, amateur and hit the thickest part of his armour but what did that matter when it cut through so easily? He was gasping his last as she stepped over him and inside.
In her smithy she found her father, bound with iron to his anvil, the forge smouldering behind him. His face was broken, beaten when he refused to help. The inside of Eos went cold at the sight and she no longer mourned for those she had killed. The blade cut through the chains and her father fell away from his anvil. “I’m going to go end this,” she told him.
“Eos, wait…” he said, stretching his hand out for her but a horn blared, cutting him off. She sprang to her feet and was gone, leaving him lying behind her.
Five men remained, four men at arms and the duke, gathered in front of the cage. They drew up at her approach but that banked fire roared inside her. The sword glowed in her hands and her hair answered, wreathing her in flame. Summer had arrived, not the gentle ones of childhood but hot, merciless, full of drought and famine. The men took one look at her as she advanced, vengeance in her footsteps, then they threw down their weapons and ran.
Only the duke stayed, his blade of steel outstretched towards her. Arrogantly, he tossed his head.
“That sword is mine,” he said. “Give it to me and your people can go free.”
He was answered with bronze and a cutting pain where his fingers had grasped the hilt. They fell away and he stared at their absence for a moment before his knees gave out. He hit the ground, clutching his bloody hand to his chest. He looked up at her, and saw his doom before him, surrounded in the dark blue of early morning. He swallowed his fear and tried to beg.
“Please don’t kill me. I’ll go, I’ll never come back….”
But heroes don’t spare monsters.
The sun rose and with it went the sword, blaze to blade, dawn to doom. The duke tried one last time but his words stuttered on his lips as she swept down, spearing him through the heart. He died instantly, one minute man, the next meat.
Eos dispassionately pulled her sword from the heap in front of her and turned to the cage. Her sword cut once and the lock was instantly severed. She wiped it clean and sheathed it before turning to look at her village, her friends, her family.
They were all staring at her. Finally one among them spoke.
“What have you done?”
With a frown on her face she answered, “I saved you.”
“He was a monster, he was evil,” she tried to say but people were talking over her, not wanting to listen to what she had to say. The words started coming thick and fast, the people she knew, her village, morphing into one mass. No longer people, just a collection of harsh words and sibilant whispers.
“He was begging for his life.”
“She just killed him.”
“Did she say she killed them all? She’s a murderer.”
“It’s her fault that we were all stuck here in the first place…”
She expected cheers. She expected gratitude.
What she got was dread, shock and despair.
Someone spat at her and she looked towards her mother but even there all she saw was horror in the eyes of the weaver. Before she could say anything else the first stone was thrown and she turned and ran.
And so did the witch’s warning come to pass.
Through the wood she ran, away from the village that was once hers and to which she could never return. Tears hazed her vision and as night fell she collapsed by a river, the sword falling beside her. Greedily she cupped the water in her hands and drank. Then she caught sight of her reflection and wept anew.
For in the water she saw that her hair no longer shone. In the wake of the slaughter it was rusted the colour of blood.
This is the fourth in the series of Fairy Tales. The first one The Ice Maiden can be found here.
What had led to the founding of the village was lost in the mists of time. Whatever had attracted the settlers there was certainly lost on the current inhabitants. It was sandwiched between a hardpacked desert and the sea. The few farmers had to constantly haul water out of the communal well to keep the few plants that would grow watered and fed. The rest of the town lived on the sea. The pier of the village was long but crumbling, stretching into the ocean like an arm that was slowly losing hope. There were shoals of fish so the villagers never went hungry but neither did they prosper. They were able to trade with the occasional passing ship but those seldom came past due to the cruel currents.
Living there was hard but it was home and the villagers didn’t want to give it up. Where else would they go that they could still be a community? Could they leave the bones of their ancestors lying forgotten? But at the same time they knew that something had to change or else their existence would fade into nothing. So they called a town meeting to discuss it.
“We need something to attract people here,” the headwoman said. She was old and wrinkled, weathered by time and the sea, with skin like leather but a voice that rang clear and loud. “Something that we can make money from. Some way to survive.”
There were mutterings from the rest of the village. They all knew this was true, this hadn’t been the first meeting on this subject, but none of them could see a way to improve their situation. The murmur was growing defeated when someone spoke up.
“What about salt?”
They turned and looked as Malvina Lux walked into the room. Malvina was born in the village the same as everyone else but unlike them she’d left, wanderlust claiming her and calling her to the sea. She had returned after a while but everyone agreed that the time away had changed her. With hair that had been long and black when she left and shorn short and turquoise when she returned and tattoos that seemed to shift places when people weren’t watching she unsettled the villagers and many parents would warn their children to stay away from her. “She has sea salt in her veins and curses under her fingernails,” they would tell them. But for all her oddity she was still one of them and important in the community. All listened as she spoke.
“Salt sells,” she said. “It’s not glamorous but with it we could salt our fish so make them more attractive to trade and to last longer. We could sell the excess at profit. It’s a good investment.”
“That it may be,” the headwoman said. “But there’s no salt here.”
“There’s the sea. It has all the salt we need.”
“But there’s no way of getting it.”
“I have heard,” Malvina replied, “of a blacksmith that can imbue objects with heat. If we get him to make a pan then every day we could fill it with sea water. It would evaporate, leaving the salt behind for us to collect. We could use it night and day, for as long as the magic lasts, and amas a fortune.”
The village liked this idea. But the headwoman was not yet convinced. “Magic costs money, and money is something we don’t have.”
“We might not have money, but we all have something. If we pull together as a village then we can afford it.”
“Yeah, right,” came a shout from the back of the room. “You’ll just take it and disappear.”
There was a general agreement before Malvina silenced it with four words.
“I’ll give the vow.”
Though much of the history of that village was lost, among what remained was the vow. It was old magic and it bound the oath taker to their word. Or so it was said, for none had dared to go against it in living memory. To invoke it was to be trusted. And, with a voice like the crashing waves, that is what Malvina Lux did.
“I swear on the wind and the water, on the sand and the sea, on my blood and my bones that I will get and bring back that pan. Or may I wander forever as the oath breaker I am.”
There was magic in vows such as that and besides, the villagers were desperate. So they gathered together a crate of silks and linen, sealed with oil to protect against the ocean and gave it to Malvina. She got in her fishing boat and started sailing up the coast. Getting into the port of Glimmeredge a week later she left the boat in the care of a friend and headed inland.
The blacksmith’s village was in the middle of the Greatwoods, a kingdom of trees and greenery. After a bit of asking around she knocked on the door she was assured was his. The blacksmith answered, his apprentice leaning around him to see who was at the door. He was a tall man, with a bushy black beard and the thick shoulders of his profession. His apprentice was a girl in her early teens, though the definition of her arms showed how dedicated she was to her work. Her long hair was a bright bronze that shone even in the dim interior of the house.
“I heard that you were the blacksmith with magic metal,” Malvina said, looking him up and down. She heaved the crate off the handcart she had rented and dropped it at their feet. “I need some work done.”
“You’ve misheard,” the blacksmith said. “There’s no magic here.”
Malvina had found the dwelling by asking where the magic blacksmith lived so she knew he was lying. Instead she levered off the top of the crate. She’d carefully packed it so that the silks were at the top and the soft gleam of them filled the air. “I don’t want anything complicated. Just a pan.” She leaned over the open crate and showed them the diagram of what she was wanting.
The blacksmith shook his head again. “We can’t make that,” but the apprentice reached past him and grabbed the diagram. With a quick look at the sailor the blacksmith slammed the door.
She could hear a fierce argument coming from behind the wood and she patiently waited. Later he came back out, looking unsettled. “It should be ready in a week,” he told her. She thanked him and took herself off to the inn, where she spent the week drinking ale, flirting with the barmaid and telling wild stories to everyone and no one who would listen. When the messenger came to let her know that it was done she finished her drink, bid a reluctant farewell to her transient companions and made her way back to the blacksmith’s home. Her knock was answered as it was back then, the blacksmith filling the door and his apprentice lurking behind him. Both looked tired, with bags under their eyes and the apprentice’s former tidy hair was messy and deformed. But Malvina didn’t pay them much attention because before her was the pan.
It was tall, coming up to the height of her knee and so wide that she could stretch both arms around it and they would not meet. The handles were of wood and a sea theme had been carved into it with no little skill, waves and shells littering the sides. But the pot itself was what caught her eye. It seemed filled with heat, the air wavering inside it and causing the bronze to look twisted and warped. But when she picked it up by the handles and swung it onto the handcart it was cool. It was perfect.
She thanked the blacksmith and his apprentice profusely and set off again for the coast. She got her boat and sailed home. But there was a reason that few ships came to the village and she was three days into the voyage, navigating the treacherous waters when the storm hit.
The mind blocks out trauma so when she awoke on the beach all Malvina could remember was an impression rushing water, of waves taller than any mountain, of St Elmo’s fire cackling along the froth. Of the world, and her boat, shattering around her. None of that was important. All that mattered was that she was alive and that her arms were wrapped around the Bronze Pan. Once those two facts became apparent she struggled to sit up, sand sliding off her, and find out where she was.
There was only two colours in the world when she looked around, the deep blue of the sea and the sky and the copper of the beach and desert. The sun had only just risen and already the heat was rising. She was already getting thirsty and knew that it would only get worse.
It was then that the Djinn appeared.
It began as a wind, a handful of grains of sand that swirled about one another, twisting, turning, picking up more until a dust devil whirled in front of her. The top of it blossomed out and a man’s upper body grew there, thick arms as muscular as Malvina’s folded across his chest, a broad nose, long wild hair that tossed in their own wind. From the shadow of his face gleamed two eyes, the piercing blue of sapphires.
Malvina knew what it was immediately. The Djinn were the focus of countless numbers of her childhood bedtime stories and she had heard more grown-up versions while travelling. No matter their content though they all agreed on one point.
Do not make deals with the Djinn.
“You’re in a bad place, Mortal,” it intoned, in a voice that was as deep as a lion’s growl.
“My name is Malvina,” she replied. Then, because the stories had warned her to be courteous, added, “How do I address you?”
“I have many names, in many places. But here and now, you may refer to me as Dhaafir.”
“Oh great Dhaafir.” Malvina bowed her head to him, still seated on the ground. “How may I help you?”
“It is not I that need help, Mortal.” An arm detached for its companion and swept forward in a great arc. “You have landed in desolation. But I can help you survive.”
“Malvina, not mortal,” the sailor replied. “And while I appreciate your concern, I am perfectly fine.”
“Perfectly fine? You have no transport, no water. All you have is a pot of bronze that you do not need. It is heavy and will only weigh you down. Give it to me and I will take you wherever you desire, and with sustenance to survive the journey.”
Malvina swallowed, her throat even dryer at the mention of water. But the Djinn wanted the pot and that was the one thing she would never give up. Her village needed it and so it wasn’t possible.
“Again, I thank you,” she said carefully. “But I have my own two feet for transport and my mind for supplying everything else. I shall be fine.”
Dhaafir seemed to find her statement funny. “We will see,” he said and then his sand collapsed in on itself and he was gone.
Malvina staggered to her feet and looked around. She needed water. She needed to work out where she was. And she needed to get to her village with the Bronze Pan. She looked at the wreckage of her boat, strewn along the coastline. And sighed.
She got to work.
The sun was at its highest point in the sky when the Djinn reappeared. He looked at her standing shirtless before the sledge of wood that she had built, the pan, with her top laid over it, resting in the centre. “Mortal, what are you doing?” he asked.
Malvina turned to him, tattoos sliding across her skin. Her worn hands continued to knot and tie the scavenged rope as she spoke. “Ah, great Dhaafir. The pot was hard to carry on its own so I had to make this. I was about to set off.”
The Djinn examined the sled as the sailor tied the rope around her waist and got ready to walk. It was a part of her ship’s keel, smoothed by years on the sea so that it would glide across the sand. “Ingenious,” he admitted. “But what about water? You still have nothing to drink.”
Malvina smiled at him and then pulled her shirt from the pan. Inside it was filled with seawater, bubbling away as it boiled. Her shirt was damp from the steam and she lifted it to her lips and sucked. The water should have tasted foul but to her cracked lips it was sweet as honey.
Once she’d sucked it dry she replaced it to start collecting more water. “I wish you a good day, Dhaafir,” she said and started for home.
The Djinn stood and watched her as she walked out of sight. Then, swift and invisible, he followed.
The sun sank slowly towards the horizon as Malvina walked onwards, the landscape undulating in front of her. One by one the stars crept from their beds, peaking down at the land below them, watching as she collapsed to the ground, tired and spent. She gazed back, taking their measure and her place in the world, for she had long ago learned to navigate by them. What she saw wasn’t reassuring. She was still three days away from the village by sea and she didn’t know how long by walking. She could chance going across the desert instead of along the shoreline that meandered like a dropped string. But that would mean leaving the coast, which was her only supply of water and she didn’t know the desert at all. There was a high risk of getting lost.
All in all, there were no good options. All that was to be done was to keep walking until she reached the village and hope that she made it. She sucked all the moisture out of her shirt, refilled the pot from the sea and settled down to sleep.
The temperature dropped fast once the sun had gone down and soon Malvina found herself shivering. The twilight painted the air violet and though the brown sand sent out the heat it had absorbed during the day it wouldn’t last long. Mist flowed from the pot where hot met cold, an invisible witches’ brew.
Which was when the Djinn appeared again.
“Are you cold, Mortal?” The words were the first Malvina knew of his coming. She sat up, trying to hide her trembling.
“Dhaafir,” she said, trying to sound excited. “Welcome to my campfire.”
He looked down at her, aquamarine eyes flashing in the starlight. “There is no fire here. But there could be. Give me the pot and you will be warm and well fed all night through.”
Malvina put an arm around the pot defensively and paused. The pot was hot beneath her skin and the numbness that had been creeping up from her fingers slunk away. She wasn’t comfortable but it was survivable. Turning to the Djinn she flashed a smile.
“Thank you for your generous offer, great Djinn, but I am well.”
“I don’t believe you,” he said bluntly. “As the night goes on it’ll get colder. I will wait until your answer changes.”
Malvina flexed her fingers, unconsciously wishing for a sword. Worse she was worried that the Djinn might be right. She needed something to distract her from the cold.
“As you wish,” she said. “But the night is long and I don’t wish for you to get bored. May I tell you some stories while you wait?”
Dhaafir eyed her suspiciously but then seemed to settle down, the cloud of his lower body condensing into legs, which he crossed as he sat before her. “Very well,” he said.
Malvina hugged the pot to her and closed her eyes and she tried to remember a story. “Far to the west, there is an island where nothing grows but a single tree,’ she began. As she spoke her voice grew in strength and confidence for, although the circumstances were a little different, she was an enthusiastic storyteller. The Djinn sat watching her rapt for most of the night as the tales flowed between them. Just before dawn Malvina drifted off to sleep and Dhaafir watched over her until the moment before she awoke.
The sun found her still shivering around the pot, hungry and tired. Her skin hurt where the sun had scorched it raw and her lips were cracked. But there was nothing she could do about it so she got up, sucked what moisture she could from the cloth, bound herself in ropes once again and start walked.
The second day passed much as the first had, though she was weaker and had to take more frequent breaks. The water didn’t taste as sweet and salt crystals covered the bottom of the pan, a painfully blinding flash of reflected light. The sunset came again and with it the Djinn.
“Malvina, I have come again.”
Malvina hadn’t so much stopped walking for the day as fallen on her face. But at his words she struggled up and planted herself around the pot.
“Welcome back to my campfire, Dhaafir. Once again I can offer you nothing for your time but stories.”
The Djinn looked at her for a moment then once again sat. “That is acceptable.”
The sailor got comfortable and, after wetting her throat, stated talking again. She’d known that the Djinn would visit and had spent the day distracting herself by thinking up stories. “Up north, where the world ends and the seas freeze there stands a fountain…”
Once again she talked through most of the night. Though in her weakness she fell asleep earlier than before. Dhaafir sat watching over her as the stars wheeled overhead and the mist flowed from the pot until she woke. Then, in the moment of her consciousness, he was gone.
It took longer for Malvina to struggle up this morning, and every step felt like the last one. The water wasn’t as thirst quenching has it had been and she could barely wrestle the pot into the water to refill it. The darkness fell and with it the end of her strength. She knew she could go no further.
And at the end a spark of fury flared within her.
“I did my best!” she screamed into the uncaring darkness. “I went out into the world, to try and help my village! I got close and, if I die now, let the world know that it was despite everything I could do! I did not lose!” Then she collapsed into a darkness she thought never to wake from.
But awake she did, to the sound of a crackling fire and the smell of roasting meat. Looking around she saw the Djinn beside a banked fire on which a spit turned slowly and she trembled, for this was a temptation that she did not think she could resist. But before she could flee the spirit spoke.
“Greetings, Malvina, and welcome to my campfire. Please, warm yourself and enjoy some food.”
“What will it cost?” she asked, for with spirits there was always a cost.
He smiled at her, weak and uncertain. “You have been kind enough to share your stories with me the last few nights. This is the least I can do to repay you. But though fire and food are cheap here water is not and you must supply that yourself.”
Malvina nodded, for that was more than fair and threw herself on the meat that was turning on the spit over the fire. It was mutton, hot and greasy and she gorged herself on it. Finally she settled back, lifting the rag that used to be her shirt to her lips and drinking as deeply as she could. Once she was sated she turned to the Djinn.
“What sort of story would you like?” she asked.
“Why are you out here, just yourself and a magical pot?”
This was a good question and a good story so Malvina began. “There was once a village on the edge of ruin…”
She fell asleep before she could finish but that was fine for it was a story that had yet to end. Dhaafir again kept watch until dawn’s arrival and then left.
The next day Malvina couldn’t travel far, still worn out by pushing herself to the edge of her endurance and beyond but when night fell Dhaafir returned to set up a campfire and cook her some food. The next day she got further and then further again the next. Every night Dhaafir was there with something to eat. Sometimes it was lizard, sometimes a bowl of figs and sometimes it was goat but it was always filling and to Malvina it was always delicious, filling her with energy as she told stories in return.
And bit by bit, day by day, she grew closer to home.
Finally the stars told Malvina that she was almost to the village and would arrive the next day. That night Dhaafir threw her a great feast, with pork and dates. She repaid him with exuberance, telling tales of high adventure and low cunning. But no matter how striking her words the Djinn seemed despondent.
“What’s wrong?” she asked finally. “Are tonight’s stories not to your liking?”
“No, no, they are fine indeed,” Dhaafir was quick to assure her. “But by tomorrow night you will be home and I’ll be alone in the desert again.”
He seemed so upset that Malvina reached across to give his arm a quick squeeze. This was the first time either had touched the other and she half expected her hand to go through him. But he was hard and warm beneath her fingers.
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said. “You know…”
He pulled himself to his feet, up and away from her, green eyes flashing.
“Do not give me your pity,” he said, half desperately. “I cannot afford it.”
Then he turned to wind and vanished. She stayed awake half the night but he did not return and eventually she went to sleep, the fire poor company without its creator.
The next day she rose alone and tied the ropes around her middle for the last time. Her skin was baked brown and no longer hurt but she knew that she would carry scars of this journey for all her life. Leaving the fireside she struck out into the desert.
The beach had been long and smooth but in the desert dunes rose and fell like waves on the sea. She struggled up them and ran down the other side, the Bronze Pot and it’s sledge surfing on the slopes. The sun crested overhead, fell to night and the moon rose and took it’s place and still she walked.
Then she topped the last rise and there it was. Before her lay the village, light shining in welcome from the windows, the sea murmuring behind it. Her legs longed to run down to it, the pan bouncing along behind her but instead she turned and looked over along the desert, where her footsteps where the only disturbance in the landscape. And she called out his name.
He was there in a moment. “Is there something wrong, Malvina?”
She turned and pointed into the village. “That house down there, with the blue door and the green shutters, is mine. You are always welcome there, to stay for a while and swap stories or just to rest. Would you like to come with me now to see it?”
“What will it cost?” he asked. She grinned.
“I’ll trade my friendship for yours and we’ll both make out on this deal.”
Dhaafir returned her grin, they clasped hands and, together, they walked into the village.
The Bronze Pan is still used today. The village prospered under it’s usage and rebuilt the long pier, where ships would stop and rest. The years of salt water have changed it, painting the inside in blues and greens. The same colour as a sparkling sea and a desert spirit’s eyes.
From a young age, when he’d been squired to a great knight, he’d always loved to fight. The thrill of besting others, the joy of swinging his sword. Though he was apprenticed to a knightly order he didn’t take vows in the end. Not for him the humility of protection, of serving. He longed only to travel the land, finding others to beat, fighting for whoever would pay him. And so he did.
Fair he was, with flowing golden locks that cascaded down his back like a cloak. His eyes were a piercing blue and his cheeks were smooth as a maidens, no weapon having cut them. But though his looks were unsullied by pain his hands told a different story, with calluses built up from the many duels and fights he had been in, small nicks and imperfections telling a more interesting story than his bland, perfect face. To look at his red lips was to see a man like any other, handsome but still usual. To look at his grip around the hilt of his sword was to see a master.
It was this sword that was his true love. A gift from his old master it was long and shone in the sun when he swung it. The hilt was wrapped leather, worn soft in his hands. He clasped it in his arms when asleep by campfires and in tents and at all other times it hung on his waist. It was the first thing he checked on in the morning and he last thing his sleepy fingers found at night. His highest calling was its care and every day he oiled it, sharpened it and checked it for rust. And in return it never failed him. It swept light and easy in his hand, it cut through armour and the people beneath it. They were a partnership, one being in the moment of combat.
The man knew it as well. Whenever someone praised him on a spectacular win in a duel or cursed him with blood bubbling on their lips his reply was always the same. The same thing he whispered to the weapon every time he won. “Thank the sword.”
And yet, when one day the sword replied to him, he was surprised.
He had been ambushed by five men when walking the border between two kingdoms and surrounded by five corpses he wiped the last of the blood off his blade. “Thank you,” he said before sheathing it.
You’re welcome came the reply, then the hilt hit the scabbard.
The swordsman stopped and looked around, wondering if someone was playing a trick or if he had imagined it. But the words didn’t come again and he was not an imaginative man. Shaking his head he walked on.
The next time the sword spoke to him was after his next fight, in an arena surrounded by baying spectators, on blood soaked sand. He had just disarmed his opponent and was walking back to his corner. “Thank you,” he said to the sword as he slid it away.
The voice in his mind was a whisper in the wind, barely heard above the cheers and cries. He looked round briefly then discarded the thought. There was so much noise you could hear whatever you wanted in it.
The third time, however, was in the dead of night. An assassin, a dismissal from a noble that was disappointed there were some problems that a good sword hand couldn’t fix, came upon him as he was sleeping. He was barely able to snatch up the sword when the woman was upon him, blade flashing in the night. Even upon his back though the man was fast and soon his assailant was dead, a snarl forever etched upon her face. Shaking, the swordsman looked at his blade, stained with the reality that he’d survived yet again. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.
You’re welcome the sword replied and this time there could be no doubt that the words had come from the weapon.
Many would panic at this, some would question it. The man just accepted it. He talked to his sword, why shouldn’t it talk back? He continued on as he had been, finding fights and thanking his sword afterwards. And always the reply You’re welcome would come. Occasionally he would joke to others that he had the politest weapon in the realm.
But though outwardly nothing changed the connection between the man and the sword got stronger. He began to sense her when doing drills and practising moves, an awareness observing what he was doing and his surroundings. And eventually the sword began to say other things.
Behind you came in the middle of a fight and the swordsman was able to turn and deflect an attack coming at his back. Thrust it suggested to win a duel. His grip is weak and the opponent’s sword went flying.
And by the day the sword asked a question it wasn’t a surprise.
By this time the sword’s voice had become familiar, a woman’s voice, high and clear like a bell. It rang inside his head as he worked at his morning drills.
Why do you fight?
“I like to win,” he replied.
“I like the way it makes me feel. It proves that I’m stronger, faster, better than everyone else.” He grinned. “That I have the better sword.”
That seemed to satisfy the sword for she spoke no more that day. But the next time he drew her she asked more questions, about his form and the way that he swung her. Then the next and the next. The questions continued and began to gradually change, from fighting and winning, to about the world around them, to the swordsman himself. He always answered honestly and the questions began to change him. Did he need to have killed that person, when he could have spared them? Was this really what he wanted for the rest of his life? But no matter what he did or where he went, she was right there beside him, asking questions and making him laugh with her comments.
He began to love her, not only as a weapon but as a person. And she loved him back.
“Would that you were a woman,” the swordsman said to her as they lay beside each other one night. “Then we could truly be together.”
Are we not together now? asked the sword.
“Your edges are sharp and can cut me.”
I’m a sword. That’s what we do.
“But wouldn’t it be good to not be like that? If you were a woman I could hold you.”
You hold me now.
“Not in that way.”
There was silence for a moment. It might be nice to be a woman, the sword said at last. But then you wouldn’t have a sword.
“I’d have you. And that would be more than enough.”
And no more was said that night.
There lived in the west at that time a wizard who was said to be able to do many miraculous things. He lived in a lighthouse on a hill, surrounded by forest. The swordman heard of him and went to ask if he could build a body for his sword. The wizard listened, running a hand through his thinning brown hair. Eventually he admitted that it was possible.
“But this will not come cheaply,” the wizard told them.
“I will pay whatever price is necessary,” the swordsman said. “I have money, in gold and precious stones. Whatever you need, I will acquire it.”
“It’s not you who will pay, for it’s not you who has to change. I have to ask your sword. Please pass her to me.”
Slowly the swordman unbuckled his scabbard and handed it over. The wizard drew and addressed the blade.
“Are you sure you want me to make you a body, a different form to this one?”
I want my wielder to be happy, the sword replied. This is what he wants.
The wizard sighed, because that was not what he had asked but he had gotten his answer anyway.
“Very well, I will try making you a body. But you must understand, this is no small thing. It will take more than my magic. However word has reached me of a blacksmith in the east who makes things from bronze that are filled with summer’s heat. I will write to him and ask him to make you a heart.”
“Thank you,” the swordsman said, taking back his sword. “Thank you for everything.”
The wizard sent out a raven with a diagram explaining what he needed and a bag of rubies and then he got to work.
He started with the sheath, for that was where the sword would be inserted to make the body her own. Most sheaths are wood but this one was metal, set with squares of copper. Around this he built the rest. With the scabbard as a backbone he curved ribs of ivory into a chest that he wrapped in steel. The sword would have no need of food so it was thin, more for form than function. The lungs were a pair of bellows, necessary only for the sword to talk, the airway the only tube that rose though the sweeping arch of her neck.
He added arms and legs, strong ones, and then began on the finer details. Her hair was soft threads of silk, her muscles stretched rubber. For the nerves he spun out gold into delicate wire and wove it through the body, a mesh that connected everything from the diamond eyes to the hinged toes.
Finally his raven came back baring the heart and he slotted it reverently in. It went in with a perfect click and life seemed to breath through the body as it started beating. The skin softened, the eyes flickered behind thin lids. It was a marvel, a dainty, sleeping, metal princess that just needed to kiss of steel to awaken it.
It was one of his finest creations but not one he felt good about.
The time came for the sword to gain her new body. The swordsman hung back nervously while the wizard stood over his creation, letting the sword feel it. He could feel her trepidation, her worries.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” the wizard asked her finally. “This is no small thing to change your mind over later, for once you go into this sheath you can never come out again.”
I’m sure, the sword whispered. I want to do this.
“Alright,” said the wizard and slotted her in.
For the first time in its existence the sword knew pain. It had nerves and those nerves were on fire, connections screaming down their lengths. Light, which had always played off her edges like water, was suddenly stabbing into her eyes. The drums in her head were reverberating with the screams that were coming out of her mouth as she drowned in sensations.
Then her hands, she had hands, were caught in a grip she recognised. Firm, careful, with calluses that they had made together. She clung to them and slowly the world around her began to make sense. And for the first time she really saw her wielder. The deep blue eyes that she now saw as beautiful. The soft mouth that seemed confident. And the hands, that anchored her to reality.
“Hello,” she said to him with a smile on her face. He grinned back. “I’m Serafina.”
“Hi Serafina. I’m Eric.”
Hand in hand they left the wizard’s tower, the dawn bronzing the leaves in the forest. A new day before them, a new future, for them to make of it what they wanted. Serafina was unsteady on her feet but Eric was careful, making sure she didn’t trip. He wouldn’t be her crutch for long. In time and distance she would dance.
They didn’t get far, however, when out of the trees stepped an ambush. Five men, all armed with clubs made of broken tree branches. Each had lost a relative or friend to the swordmen and they had banded together to seek revenge. It was just luck that they’d caught up with him here. Their good, his bad.
“I don’t want any trouble,” Eric said to them as they barred his path. “I have given up violence.”
“But that won’t bring back the ones that you killed,” they said to him.
“I have a new purpose in life, being in love.”
“But we loved the ones who died,” came the reply. “We are their retribution.”
It was clear that there would be no talking out of this and Eric had never been as good with his tongue as his weapon. Bravely he stepped forward.
But a swordsman without a sword is just a man and he was one man against five.
And there was nothing Serafina could do. This body was still strange to her and she could barely walk. For once in her life she wasn’t ready for a fight. Without Eric’s support all she could do was fall to her knees and watch.
When the wizard found her later she was knelt by the body of her fallen wielder, her bronze heart full enough to burst. He brought her back to his tower, where it is said that that she lives still. And where else would she go? She had lost her only place in the world.
Once upon a time there was a village that nestled in the far north. Backed by tall mountains to the south it looked across a wide, white plain where reindeer roamed. By day the people who lived there would farm the land, fish in mountain lakes and hunt. By night they would gather together for warmth, carve antlers and sew pelts and watch the northern lights dance in the dark sky. Nobles in the great southern castles would describe life there as ‘idyllic’ or ‘bucolic’ but they didn’t know the strain that hard work put on the bones, nor the dangers from snapping ice and sudden storms. The residents loved their village, in spite of the danger and the hard work that every day brought. They were explorers and, for the good of all the world, heroes.
For the name of the village meant First Warning.
Every few years there arose in the north an Ice Queen. No one knew where they came from but the stories told of the signs. A giant castle of ice would rise, past where the fields of snow met the walls of glaciers, underneath the pole star. The winters would get colder and colder, the nights darker as the years went on until eventually a winter would come with ceaseless snow that would cover the world. Before this a hero would have to set out from First Warning, travel north and kill the Ice Queen. Otherwise all the world would be smothered in an eternal winter.
The signs of this rise were fickle. The elders of the village were tasked with watching for them, as they would be able to best judge when winters were getting harder and when a rise was imminent. But memory is based on perception and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason behind the rises and so sometimes a rise wouldn’t be noticed until it was almost too late.
Which is when our story starts.
The endless night had already started when the elders came for Adlartok. The sun had gone down three nights ago and had not risen. Although the signs before now had been ignored that did not mean that the village had not been prepared. Every generation a hero was chosen and trained and Adlartok was that hero. Tall he stood, and broad, with dark hair and noble bearing. He was the best hunter in the village, brought back the best fish from the hidden lakes and could live out on the ice for weeks at a time. The three elders knocked at his door and were let in by his sister, Uki. In the sitting room they met with Adlartok.
The elders told what he already knew, that the time had come, and what he did not. They gave him a knife from the far south, traded for at great expense. He looked it, the hilt iron, the sheath smooth leather. “I already have a knife,” he told them.
“That is not any weapon,” he was told in return. “It has summer trapped in it.” And indeed, when he unsheathed the blade the air in the room became stiflingly hot, the bronze leaf blade gleaming in the light from the oil lamps. “That is the weapon that will kill the Ice Queen.”
He sheathed the dagger and nodded to the elders. “I’ll set out tomorrow,” he told them. And so they left, talking of how brave Adlartok was, how they’d made the right decision.
It was only Uki, who saw the fear within him.
That night, when he got out his rucksack and started packing, she was right beside him, tall and dark like his shadow. “I’m coming with you,” she told him.
“This is my duty,” he replied, tucking the summer dagger deep into his pack. “It is dangerous.”
“All the more reason for me to come with you,” Uki replied. “I’m your older sister. I helped raise you, I taught you what you know.”
Adlartok laughed. “I’m not a child any more. This is for me to do and me alone.”
His sister looked at him for a moment then silently put away her rucksack. “So be it,” she said.
So the next day they embraced and then he set off alone.
The snow plains stretched out before him and he walked in silence, hunched up in his furs, his big body cutting a path through the packed whiteness. The wind howled around him, sneaking past his hood to run fingers down his cheeks to sink into his bones. Eventually, when he thought that night had come and when he could go on no longer, he made camp, lighting a fire from the small amount of wood he carried.
The next day was the same, and the next, and the next, each blending into each other and he walked across the featureless plain. There was nothing to see, not trees, not the occasional herds of reindeer that he had hunted here before. Just the dark, just the snow that filled in his tracks and fought against him, pushing him gently back as he pushed forward. Every day was just like the last and nothing was different.
Until one day it was.
The landscape in front of him changed, sprouted a dark hill that grew and grew until he reached it. Above him loomed the ice walls of the glaciers. He stood looking at them for a while then made camp for the night. He knew he’d need all his strength come the morning. After eating by the fire he finally looked back the way he’d come. The trail he’d made was almost filled in and he could see the lights of his home village, far across the plain. And closer, like a falling star, he thought he could see a small ember of a fire. But snow started falling and blew a flurry across his face and when it was gone so had the ember. He stared after it for a time then turned round and crawled into his tent.
He started early the next morning. The elders had spoken to him of this and he knew that he was finally close. Once he was at the top of the glaciers he’d be able to see the palace of ice. It was just a few hours walk away. Once he was at the top of the glaciers.
Out of his bag he pulled a pouch of iron spikes. Around a wrist he hung a small hammer. Into the ice walls he pounded first one spike then another, then a third above them. Testing to make sure they took his weight he stepped up onto them, grabbed the third and pulled himself close to the wall. It sucked at him, pulling away his heat but he ignored that and brought out another spike, pushing it into the ice and then hitting with the hammer. It proved sturdy and like this he slowly made his way up the wall.
It wasn’t smooth, this ice, but craggy and pitted. It reminded Adlartok of the mountains of home, the ridges and hollows that allowed purchase for hands. It took him hours but slowly he managed to make his way up. At last he raised his head and saw the sky above him, the top of the glacier closer than he could have imagined.
The end was in sight. He laughed, glad that he was almost there.
Then the ice crumbled beneath his last spike and Adlartok fell.
The snow itself was soft but the ice it shallowly covered was hard and it broke the hero when he hit it. Big fluffy flakes landed on him, soft as kisses on his cheeks. The world grew dark and the snow grew warm. And Adlartok died.
Either an hour or an eternity later, it didn’t matter which, Uki came and stood over him. The snow was still falling thick and she had to dig with her gloved hands, tears freezing on her face, until she could uncover him. She held him, one last time, and wailed in harmony with the wind. Then she took his pack from him and set up camp for the night.
By the time she awoke he was once again buried. Not able to look at the spot where her brother lay she walked over to the walls of ice and began her own climb.
The spikes her brother had hammered in still held strong and she scaled the walls with ease. She came to the spot where the ice had splintered and stopped a moment. Then she took the next spike from her bag and drove it in.
Eventually she made it to the top and the wind died around her. Before her was a frozen sea, waves and solid ridges of ice curling over themselves. There was a light in the distance, green, purple and blue, like the northern light caught in a spike upon the ice. She felt hatred and anger and the magic dagger that she’d taken from her dead brother heating her within and she started marching determinedly forward.
The uneven ice caught at her feet and she tripped and stumbled but her anger pushed her onward. The spire grew larger, sprouted wings and extensions until at last the castle of ice stood before her. Its bones were stone, shining white marble that shone out from places where the ice hadn’t yet grown over it. The doors were of purple ice, strong and imposing, with big flat steps leading up to them.
Her hand reached within her furs and gripped the summer dagger that nestled within. Then she started climbing the steps. The large doors barred her way but they opened easily at her touch, swinging wide and showing the grand entrance of the palace. A wide sweeping staircase stood before her, the bannisters ice and the treads stone. With blade in hand she stalked up them. The wind that tore around her had a cry now, a human sound and she followed the wailing.
And there in the throne room she found her. Not on the throne itself, a smirk as cold as the wind cutting across her face, but in the shadow of it, curled up in a small ball. A child, a girl, long white hair and big blue eyes the clear shade of ice from which tears slide down porcelain cheeks. She looked up at Uki, gave a sob echoed by the wind outside and threw herself at her, burying herself in her killer’s arms. Uki found herself holding the small warm body tight, the hair pressed against her cheek. She looked over the child’s shoulder, at the knife she still clutched tight in her fist and felt her heart freeze, the anger draining out of it. She knew she couldn’t do it.
The crying slowly faded and with it the cold. The girl looked up at Uki and smiled and with that smile a wave of heat ran through the castle.
“Who are you?” Uki asked the small girl in her arms, murmuring it into her hair. “Where did you come from?”
“I don’t know,” the girl replied. “I’ve always been here. I just know that I am alone.” She looked up at the older girl. “Please don’t go,” she said, tears beading in her eyes, as the temperature dropped again. “Don’t leave me all alone again.”
“I won’t,” Uki promised her, holding her tight.
They stayed like that for a while, a small pile of furs and companionship. Then it was interrupted by a growling in Uki’s stomach. The child’s eyes flew open.
Before Uki could answer the girl can concentrated and a bowl of ice appeared on the floor beside them. “Eat this,” the girl said, disentangling from Uki and picking it up. She looked down and saw that the bowl was filled with snow.
“I can’t eat this,” she tried to tell the child but faltered at the look on the smaller girl’s face. Giving up she scooped a small amount of the snow into her mouth but was surprised to find it warm and nourishing. The girl laughed to see the expression on her face, jumped up and pulled the older girl to her feet.
“Let’s go play,” she said.
They explored the castle and the girl showed Uki all of it, from the top of the huge tower where a balcony looked back on the glaciers and snow plains, to a large bedroom with a feather stuffed bed. There the day ended, with the two of them lying together under white covers, Uki’s arms wrapped tight around the ice queen.
“Can you stop it?” she whispered in the small child’s ear. “Can you stop the winter?”
“Maybe,” the girl replied. Then she fell asleep.
Maybe, Uki told herself as she held the child tight. Maybe tomorrow she’ll get it under control.
Every day they would explore the castle together, playing little games, growing closer together. Every day Uki would ask the girl to try and control her powers to stop the winter and every day the girl would try but fail.
Every night Uki would stand at the top of the tower, looking through the steady snowfall back to where her village sat backed by the mountains. Every night she would watch for the light from their doors and windows, for the smoke that came from their fires.
Until a night came when, no matter how hard she looked, there were no lights to see, and no smoke rising into the air. And then she knew that her village had been buried.
“You have to try,” she told the girl the next day.
“Try what?” The girl asked as she played on the stairs with small dolls made of snow.
“You’ve got to stop the winter. It’s too cold.”
“I don’t find it cold,” said the girl. “It’s just right for me.”
“But it’s not for other people.”
She looked up, suddenly concerned. “Is it too cold for you?”
“No,” said Uki for the inside of the ice castle was always warm to her these days. “But there are others out there who aren’t me.”
“I’ve never met them. Why should I care?”
Uki took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “Just try it, will you?”
“Ok, I’ll try. For you.”
The girl took a deep breath, closed her eyes and focused. The wind dropped to nothing and a sudden silence fell. For a moment Uki thought she could see the faint glow of a dawn though the windows.
Then the ice child’s eyes flew open and she burst out laughing, the wind echoing it with a flurry of snow.
Uki felt the sparks of anger stir within her again. Again she saw her brother, lying dead in the snow. Suddenly she was on her feet, yelling.
“People are getting hurt. People are dying! Do you want people to die? Because it’s your fault!”
The wind whipped fiercely against the ice panes. There was a rumble, a groaning, a shifting as the ice itself rose and bucked. The ice child rose into air that was suddenly glittering with frost. Uki felt her eye lashes freeze and she ran from the room, slipping on the ground. Behind her the queen hung suspended, cradled by her terrible power.
And then she collapsed, crying, onto the ground. Uki looked round the door, carefully approached and gathered the girl up into her arms.
“I can’t,” the ice child sobbed. “I keep trying but I don’t know how. I don’t want to hurt people but I can’t.”
“It’s ok,” Uki told her, pulling her tight against her. “Don’t cry. I’ll take care of it.”
That night she put her in the bed, with covers as white as snow. She told her of her brother, how she’d showed him the paths on their mountains that led to the lakes, how she’d taught him how to fish. She eased in beside her, held her close and sang the songs of her buried people until the ice child’s breath came deep and even. She cradled her, kissed her pale hair.