It’s always an event when a god comes to your village.
I was the first person to notice him this time. I was in the outer pasture, looking after the sheep. It’s an important job but not an active one. If a wolf threatens the flock I leap into action. If a lamb manages to get trapped in a clear field, it happens, I rescue it. But when that’s not happening there’s not much to do but sit around, staring at the horizon and dreaming of something interesting.
Of course when that interesting thing came along it took a while to recognise it.
He was just a figure on the horizon at first, just another traveller on the road through our village. We get them occasionally, not often but enough that it’s not an event. I idly watched him and it was only as he got closer I realised it wasn’t a cloud of road dust surrounding him.
Have you ever seen a swarm of bees? I’ve seen a lot of pictures of what people think it looks like. Usually they’re depicted as a black cloud. That’s not it at all. There’s no sharp outline to them, no contours. Suddenly there’s a lot more bees in one place then there should be and by the time you realise that they’re almost on you.
Which meant the squat figure in the centre of them could only be one thing.
I called out to the other shepherd, a kid named Steven, and he came running. Like I said there’s not much distractions as a shepherd and it wasn’t like he was doing anything. I pointed out the god immediately.
“The village has to know,” I told him.
“Right.” He nodded determinedly, turned on his heel and took off. I stared after him in disappointment. I’d wanted to be the one to go, to get the accolade and excitement that would come with the news. I suppose I could have raced him back but the sheep needed to be watched.
So instead I gathered the herds together, sat under a tree where I could see them all and waited for the god.
And then, there he was.
It had been a few years since the God of Flowers and Honey had visited our village. It had been a while since any god had been by, honestly. A couple of decades ago the God of Myths and Stories had spent a week here but I think he found it boring as he hasn’t been back since. And Jocelyn swore that she saw The Night Walker once but that was probably just for attention. But that meant I didn’t really know what to do so I just sat watching my sheep.
Apparently that was the right choice. He walked up to me and I braced myself for a painful death. Instead he let out a sigh and sat something down next to me.
“What’s your name, young man?”
“Iwan, your grace.”
He waved away the honorific. It wasn’t his way. “Do you mind if I rest for a spell?” he asked. “It’s been a long road.”
“Of course not,” I replied. “Help yourself.”
I snuck a look at him as he settled himself down. He was wearing loose, white robes stained brown with the dust of the road and yellow with pollen. Beneath them there was the outline of a boxy body that seemed to emit a deep hum. He turned to look back at me and I gazed up into the mask that all gods wore. It was hexagonal, a deep amber colour and had two deep, black eyes that stared right into my soul. Like all god masks it fitted so tightly into the head that it was hard to see the joins. A light brushing of white hair covered the top.
And, of course, he was alive with bees.
Bees crawled out of the collar of his robe and over his face and eyes. Bees buzzed out of his wide sleeves. Bees returned, laden with pollen, passing their brethren in mid-air. I blinked and tried not to flinch away as one flew right by my face.
“Are they disturbing you?” the god asked. “I could quiet them but this is a lovely meadow full of flowers and I would hate for them to miss it.”
I licked my lips nervously then very carefully shook my head. “Nope. I’m fine. This is fine.”
I’m fairly sure he could tell that I was not in any way fine but he said nothing. We sat for a while in silence, him seemingly very comfortable, while I was resisting the urge to leg it. I kept one eye on my sheep and examined the thing he’d set down. It seemed to be a box, wrapped in muslin. The odd wisp of smoke escaped from it from time to time.
“Would you like something to eat?” the god abruptly asked. I wanted to refuse but it’s bad manners to refuse a god so I said I would. He reached within his robes, deeper than I would have thought possible, and withdrew a fist sized chunk of honeycomb. It was oozing with honey and my mouth instantly started watering. I had hazy memories of the god passing out the treat to small kids when he last came through but, as I said, that had been years ago and I hadn’t had anything like it since. It was all I could do to take small bites of it and not just inhale it.
“Bees are a lot like sheep,” he said while I attacked his gift. My mouth was full of the sweet sticky comb so I didn’t reply. “They’re a group, like a flock. Sometimes they have to be guided to new fields to eat, sometimes they have to be protected from predators. Sometimes they stray and have to be brought back. Most of the time though you just stay by and watch them.”
“Bees can sting you,” I said, having finally swallowed in a dignified way. “Sheep can’t.”
“Sheep can attack you, if you threaten them. But allow them to be, guide them gently and they won’t hurt you. Hold out your hands.”
I obeyed and he reached inside himself again but this time he took out a handful of bees. Before I could take my hands back he’d dumped them into the bowl of my palms. I froze, waiting for the pain and the sudden stings but it didn’t come. They swarmed over my fingers but they didn’t hurt me. Suddenly fascinated I raised them to my eye and stared at them. Fuzzy insects though they were I suddenly could see what he had meant.
“So you’re basically a shepherd?” I asked then inwardly winced at my audacity. But the god just laughed and scooped up his bees again.
“Of a kind I suppose.”
We spent the remainder of the time chatting away, talking of the fields and flowers that were nearby. I was no longer scared of the bees that came and went, understanding them better now. Eventually we were interrupted by a murmuring from behind us. From the village a group approached, headed towards us and led by Quinten, the Flower Priest. It was the welcoming party, assembled at last to greet the god.
“I was wondering if you could do me a favour,” he said, getting to his feet while the crowd in the distance got closer.
“Of course,” I replied. “Anything.”
He reached a hand out and laid it gently on the package by his side. “Could you keep an eye on this for me? I’ll need it later but it would be best if it stayed where it is for now.”
“Of course,” I repeated.
“Great. I’ll send someone to get it and you when it’s needed. Don’t unwrap the cloth around it and keep it safe. And please, if you can, talk to it a bit.”
“Talk to it?” I asked but he was already walking towards the crowd. There was a cheer of delight as they met and mingled before disappearing off towards the village.
Leaving me, the box and the sheep.
At first I just stared at the box, alert to any danger. The steady hum was still there so maybe I’d been mistaken about it coming from the god. The smoke that still occasionally worked itself free smelt sharp, like pine sap.
After a while with nothing happening I started to calm down and the box became just another thing to check on. I’ll admit, I even became bored. Usually I could listen to Steven’s inane rambling to pass the time but he hadn’t come back.
The solitude really started to get to me once night had fallen. I was hungry, having only eaten the honeycomb since lunch, but there was nothing around for me to eat. I wandered around to stretch my legs and stared up at the nights sky. The sheep had mostly settled down to sleep and so I was alone in gazing up at the myriad of stars that coasted above me. My eyes followed The Lumberjack’s Trail and settled upon The God-Father’s Eye. Then I cast my gaze back to the village. By now the festival celebrating the god’s arrival would be in full swing and here I was.
It was then I followed my god’s last instruction and started talking to the box.
“I can’t believe they left me here,” I said to it. “I was the first one to stop him. I should be there now. Instead I’m out here, with you.”
It didn’t reply, the humming was more muted if anything, but I felt better, somehow. Like there was something listening and agreeing with me.
I will admit, I spent a lot of time complaining to the box as the night drew on.
Finally, once the nights’ chill was sinking through my woollen cloak, Steven appeared. He staggered a bit as he made his way over to me and sat down a bit harder than he should have. At least he’d enjoyed the night.
“The god wants you,” he said without preamble. “He asked if you could take him the thing.”
“What about the sheep?” I asked.
“I’ll look after them. I’ve had enough of the party anyway.”
I wasn’t fully convinced he was capable but who was I to refuse a god? I walked over to the box and gently picked it up. It was heavy and the humming grew it pitch as it moved.
“Shush, it’s ok,” I told it and it quietened down again as I walked off. Slowly. I don’t know how strong the god was to make carrying it seem effortless but he was clearly stronger than me.
Down the road I went, following in the god’s footsteps hours later, and into the village. I knew where everyone would be without having to ask.
The god’s temple was a huge greenhouse, lit from within by many lanterns and candles. The Flower Priest carefully grew a variety of exotic flowers inside, following the teachings of his profession. There was usually a feeling of warmth and peace when you walked inside. Tonight the heat remained but the peace was shattered by the town celebrating loudly.
I pushed my way past neighbours, still carefully cradling the box. In the centre of the room, surrounded by the village, the god was holding court. He had summoned his swarm back inside himself and was busy handing out honeycomb to the children. Seeing me he straightened up.
“Ah, you’re here! Excellent, it’s time to make the announcement. Put it here, would you?”
He gestured to his side and I put down the box with the same level of care that I had used up until that point. I was about to move away back into the crowd but he laid a gentle hand on my shoulder. The other he raised in the air to get everyone’s attention. It took a while but silence eventually spread across the crowd. Then the god began his pronouncement.
“I come baring good news! There has been a new birth in my hive, a new queen born. The time has come for part of the swarm to go its separate way, to find new flowers. And it is here this swarm will be based, in this village where it will live, to give honey and wax.”
With a flourish he pulled the muslin off the box, revealing a hive within. Then he turned and looked down at me.
“And I put it into your care, young Iwan.”
Have you ever had your life change, irrevocably, in a moment? It’s a heady feeling. One moment I was just Iwan, normal shepherd. The next I was a Honey Priest! It felt unreal, a joke, and so I stammered out an objection.
“I…I am not worthy. You are a god! Where you walk the flowers bloom.”
“And you will do a marvellous job looking after my children, if you show at least half the dedication you have shown to looking after your sheep.”
It was then that I realised. This whole thing, the discussion of bees and the long wait deep into the night, had been a trial. And by waiting patiently and looking after the young hive I’d proven myself worthy of joining his priesthood.
I looked around, as everyone began to congratulate me, until I saw a discordant cord within all the happiness. Quinten looked deeply saddened. He met my eye and smiled weakly but I couldn’t help feeling that something had gone badly wrong, even as I was swept away.
I found out the truth the next morning as I was getting a brief instruction in the care of the bees. The god gave me my new bible, a book on beekeeping and instructions on how to keep them safe. I noticed his swarm was still hidden and asked about it. His mask moved slightly and I could feel him smile at me.
“Well that’s the problem. You see, this isn’t their territory any more. It belongs to your swarm now. When a queen is born the swarm separates and they go their own ways. Two swarms can’t exist in the same place or else they’ll fight. That’s why I have to go away.”
“But you’ll be back, right?” Even if it was years later we would still be here, waiting for him. He had to come back, didn’t he?
He just sadly shook his head. “You and Quinten are my representatives here. Train others in your jobs and, if you have need, come and find me. But this is the last time I will visit your village.”
There were a last few words, both to me and the Flower Priest. There was another speech to the villagers, a few more honeycombs handed out surreptitiously. But then it was the end.
He left as he came, retreating into the distance until he was just a figure surrounded by a cloud of bees. Then he was gone.
It was a happy day, for we had been blessed. It was a sad day, for the god would not return.
Fire covered everything, the heat searing the land. All that used to be was rent asunder. Life died, rocks cracked and everything ended.
And out of that destruction stepped the Blacksmith.
He was all that was left of the past. He looked across the black and broken landscape and decided that this would not do. He alone remembered what had been. And while the old world was gone the materials were there to rebuild, to make it anew. And so that’s what he set out to do.
First he built the Godholm, raising the metal spires to the sky and digging the basement into the earth. Deep within it he constructed his workshop. And he set to work.
The dead landscape was an affront to him and that was what he decided to fix first. He created the God of Honey and Flowers, weaving the memory of all the colour and sweetness that old world had lost and binding it together in a box. A great buzzing arose and the God awoke. He walked out the door and kept walking. Where he passed grass and flowers sprouted under his feet and bees followed in his wake.
But while he was life The Blacksmith knew that that was not enough. He melded memories of healthy rot and decay, of things dying only to live again, and then he took a sliver of the dark sky to serve as wings. The Nightwalker flew from the Godholm, never to return, for while he loved his daughter she reminded him too much of the past.
Soon the land was green again and filled with a healthy buzz of bees, while in the shadows lurked mushrooms and spiders.
And it was better. But not enough.
He created the axe first and the man to wield it afterwards. When the Lumberjack opened his eyes he was handed the first sapling and then the tool that would eventually cut it down. He strode forth and soon his forests began to sprout and cover the land.
And it was better. But it was not enough.
The Blacksmith then turned his attention to the sea. Five miles from Godholm lies Startagain Bay and it was here he stood, looking out over the water. The sea was broken, the water stilted and half solid instead of flowing. He sighed and held out his hand. From his fingers dropped The Leviathan. Small it was at first, barely the length of a worm. It fell onto the sea and started eating. The corruption was its diet and it was hungry. The water in the bay eventually started to move more naturally, shone more cleanly and the Leviathan, now massive, slipped out into the ocean.
Happy with his progress the Blacksmith returned to his workshop. He brought with him the shine of the moon on the waves from the bay, the taste of brine and a net of ocean mist. With them he made the God of Oceans and Waters and set him to continue where his elder brother had started. He would bring the fish back to the waters.
And it was better. But it was not enough.
Insects and fish were all very well but he remembered bigger, more complicated creatures. He smote the essence of the wild on his anvil, the howl of a wolf to the moon and the lowing of cows in a field. The Brutal God of Animals barely acknowledged him as he stalked from his birthplace, out to the wilderness that was forever his home. Fast on his heels came the God of Fruits, a bunch of seeds clutched in her hands.
Finally the project was done. The Blacksmith left Goldholm and went to see what his children had created.
The landscape was healing. Instead of a blasted wasteland there was colour and life. Deer wandered the forests, fish swam in rivers and birds called overhead. There was still work to do, there would always be work to do, but he’d created the tools to get it done.
It was then that he discovered the first humans.
Pitiful they were, lost children wandering around, clothed only in scraps. They saw him and shrank back in fear, running and screaming. The Blacksmith was surprised, for he thought their kind had vanished from the world they’d destroyed. But his heart was filled with pity. He knew that his world would not be complete without them.
So back to his workshop he went.
From a lantern he created The Lost, to look for them in the dark places and gather them into the light. From a warm fireplace he made The Founder, to create villages for them to live. And from a drop of his own blood he made the God of Medicine, to see to the people and make them well.
And for a while all was well. The villages were created and filled, mankind became healthy and well fed. They should have been content.
But the seeds of destruction lie in the heart of man and they take little effort to grow.
The villages started wanting more, more food, better houses. They became angry that the Lost would bring more people that they didn’t know, even though there was plenty for all. The villages went to war with each other and families turned against each other.
Then came the Betrayal.
With The Founder dead and The Lost gone, The Blacksmith flew into a rage. He was a god of creation but at that moment all he wanted was destruction. He took up his hammer and strode towards the villages, ready to end the blight of humanity once and for all. But before he got there he felt eyes upon him.
He looked all around but there was no one to be seen. However the pause had broken his temper and he returned to himself. He looked upon mankind not as a thing to be destroyed but as something to fix. Something to be guided.
He took the bloody spear that had taken his son and from it made the God of Honourable Combat. For he thought that if mankind was destined to fight then they should learn a sustainable way to go about it, not the mad scraping for power that had gone before. The god left and gathered his warriors, training them not for peace but for preservation.
He took his tears and made the Many-Faced God of Love. If humans could learn how to love each other and be free, he thought, then they wouldn’t want to break each other. The God came together gracefully and hugged their father. Then they left.
He took his anger and beat it again and again on the anvil until it was purified and from that he made the God of Law and Justice. So that when humans did break the laws they knew that a fair accounting was in store. The god tipped his hat and left with his long strides, to try and make the world a better place.
But he also knew that humans had to have something to reach for. So he took the last sight he’d had of the Lost and made the God of Maps and Mountains, so that humans would always want to reach for the horizon and explore. The God barely nodded to his father, rushing out the door to see what he could find.
And finally he took all his memories of the last world, all the things that had once been and would never be again, and he made the God of Myths and Stories. So that humanity would know what they had lost and try and learn from their past.
This god didn’t leave like the rest. He stayed with his father for a week, talking to him and learning all he could. For the god knew that every good story starts at the beginning and The Blacksmith was the beginning for us all.
His duty to mankind done The Blacksmith went back to where he’d been stopped from destroying humanity. He looked around, trying to work out what had been looking at him. He searched under rocks and behind trees but couldn’t find anything. Finally, once the sun had set, he looked up and into one hundred eyes.
This was another god, one he hadn’t created but which had managed to slip out of the last world with him. But they hadn’t manged to make it to this new world, trapped outside it and only able to look in.
The Blacksmith felt sorry for them, and thankful that they had woken him from his dream of death. So he went back to his workshop. He couldn’t bring them into this world but instead he made them puppets that they could control, five hundred of them that walk among us to this day. And so was born the God of One Hundred Eyes and One Thousand Hands. And they were welcome.
Thus the new world finally came into being, along with the gods that guide us to this day. Remember well, child, that we are a second chance. One that must not be squandered. Love yourself, love each other and love the gods that keep us safe.
Her name was Cirrus and she was daughter to the King of Storms. But that isn’t important. It was where her story started but it didn’t define it. In truth she remembered little of that time, just rage and pain and fear. The important moment, the first one that she remembered clearly, was when something broke through all the bluster and rage of her father like the sun through the clouds. The first thing that she remembered was a face, peaking in at her through a window in the tower she lived in.
This was the boy who didn’t fear the Storm King. He would come to visit whenever he could sneak away from his parents’ chores and goats. To begin with she tried desperately to ignore him. Her father was always angry when she spoke to the villagers who came to give him offerings and she desperately tried not to make him angry for he would punish her for all her faults, real and imagined. But the boy was persistent.
He began to appear more and more, making funny faces and trying to get her to laugh or talk to him. Though Cirrus kept trying to ignore him she found herself watching for his brown hair or blue eyes at the window, listening for his whistle. Eventually she gave in and they would occasionally play together. Only in her room, for she wasn’t allowed to leave the tower and didn’t want to risk her father finding out that she had made a friend.
She tried to keep him calm and happy, coming when he called and performing any chore he had for her. But some things are inevitable and she could not calm the storm’s anger. He needed to do that himself and he found blaming Cirrus easier.
Then one day she was curled in her bed, tears falling like raindrops from her eyes, her cheeks smarting from her father’s latest remonstrations. She wasn’t aware that the boy had picked that day to visit until he was sitting next to her, an arm awkwardly outstretched in the half-formed promise of a hug he wasn’t sure he should deliver.
“Why are you crying?” he asked.
Without knowing what else to say she told him, “Because my father is angry. And when he’s angry he hits me.”
His face grew dark and Cirrus shrank back from him, scared that she had made him, her one friend, angry and that he would hit her. But his fury was not directed at her.
“Pack your clothes and whatever you don’t want to leave behind. I’m getting you out of here and taking you where he can’t hurt you ever again.”
“But that will just make him more angry!”
The boy smiled at her a crooked, half formed grin. “Then let him be angry at me. I can take it.”
The girl of storms packed mechanically, not believing that escape was possible. The Storm King would track them down and then she’d be in even more trouble. But she didn’t have the energy to fight and so she gathered her things and followed the boy out of the window and to the village below.
First he led her to a blacksmiths but it was closed up and dark. So he took her to a house instead, banging on the door and demanding to be let in. Cirrus followed behind, not paying much attention to her surroundings, still just going through the motions. She listened vaguely until she heard the boy say, “I need you to take her and go far away, where he can never find her again. Please.”
Then the reality of the situation finally began to settle in and she peaked around her friend at the people who would save her.
There were two women standing there. These were the mothers that Cirrus would come to love. One was big and expressive. She wore her bronze hair short and was always ready with a hug and a kind word. She was the mother of metal, called Eos or sometimes Kaolinite. The other was the mother of ice, Uki. Her hair was dark and she wore thick gloves on her hands. She was often withdrawn and quiet but when Cirrus needed her she was there and held her hand so tight. They were both bearers of cursed blades, one a dagger, one a sword, that they didn’t let out of their sight.
They all looked at each other then Uki glanced at Eos for a quick moment.
“We’ll look after her,” said the shorter one as the other nodded.
And like that she had a real family.
The boy went running after that, back to his family and out of her life, though not out of her thoughts. Eos sent a quick glance skating over the building before turning to Uki.
“I need to get some things from the smithy. Can you stay here for a while?”
Uki smiled coldly and showed her the bronze dagger. “He wouldn’t be the first elemental I’ve killed and I’d mourn him a lot less.”
“Take care.” With that Eos left and Uki started rummaging around, finding some rucksacks and filling it with food and other things. Cirrus stayed crouched by the fire, staring into the flickering flames and wondering when this dream would end. She was startled to feel a quick touch on her shoulder, gentle as a snowflake, and turned to see Uki standing there.
“Don’t worry,” was all she said. “You’re safe with us.”
And then the blacksmith return, packed a few more things and they were gone.
Across the plains, over hills and through forests they travelled, Uki stalking ahead, cold eyes searching out the path while Eos helped Cirrus along. They would hide from storm clouds, flinch from investigating breezes. Every night they’d huddle together, sharing Uki’s furs and Eos’ cloak, not willing to risk a fire that might draw attention. Cirrus would stare up at the sky, waiting for the thunder of approaching footsteps or the crack of a slap. But each day they would get up and start moving again, getting further and further away, and she began to hope.
Safety was a hole in the ground, the entrance to a tunnel that Cirrus would never have found on her own. Stepping into it was like being smothered in wool. A connection to the sky and weather that she’d never been aware of was abruptly cut off. She collapsed, gasping, but Mothers Metal and Ice sat with her, comforting her and waiting until she was strong enough to continue.
Then it was through tunnels, along passages lit only by the occasional lantern and otherwise by the glowing blades of the mothers. Through the labyrinth they strode, Eos in the lead this time and Uki holding her hand, until they came to a little green door. Kaolinite dithered in front of it, suddenly nervous, before knocking.
A small man opened the door, squinting up at them. His eyes were green and his hair a muddy brown. He was the same size as Cirrus and Uki and Kaolinite towered over him. “Hi Dad,” Mother Metal said awkwardly. “We needed to go where the storm couldn’t find us. Can we stay here for a while?”
There was a pause and Cirrus was afraid that all the travel would have been for nought. Showing up unexpectedly like this? She knew fathers and knew that a beating was what was expected. She flinched back when the knocker yelled but it was in delight, not anger.
“Of course, of course, come in!” he cried, seizing his daughter and guiding them inside to the fire.
And her family got a little bigger.
Grampa Kernowite dotted on her. She learned that Kaolinite, his daughter, had come to him as a teenager and that he’d never seen a child as young as her before. He would bring her little presents, interesting rocks and a few sweet treats that he found somewhere. She’d play with them in the flickering light of the fire, the sparkles in the rocks combining with the sugar in her mouth while the adults worked on expanding the home for all of them. Soon she had a room all to her own, a place of safety where she could hide away. And at first she did, spending days cowering in the quiet. Her mothers would bring her food and sit with her. Kaolinite would tell jokes while she ate and Uki would just sit in comfortable reassuring silence.
But every so often she would creep into the main room, where Grampa Kernowite would tell her stories, sometimes about the great legends of the knockers and sometimes, lovingly, teasingly, about the embarrassing things Kaolinite had done when she first lived with him. Those were her favourites, Kaolinite would squawk in fake outrage and swat at her father. Cirrus would find herself laughing, bell-like chuckles that filled the room with the smell of fresh spring rain. Slowly, like a plant growing, she began to spend more time outside. Her bedroom was always there when she needed it but she needed it less and less.
They stayed underground for years, growing in the dark and quiet. Cirrus grew taller, both inside and out. She grew confident, able to have a discussion or an argument without flinching, able to look people directly in the eye without feeling like it was a sin.
The first time she lost her temper felt like a failure. She found herself yelling at her family, her eyes flicking, her voice cracking like thunder, her hair stained a dark black. In that moment she saw herself as her father and her rage left her. Fleeing to her room she locked herself away in the dark, surrounded by self-hatred and recrimination.
It was Uki that came to her then, not Kaolinite like she would have expected. The two sat quietly for a while, getting used to each others’ presence and feeling out the situation. Then she embraced the cloud child, holding her close while she flurried with sobs.
“It isn’t wrong feeling emotions,” her mother eventually said to her. “It’s what you do with them. And while you blew and stormed you didn’t lash out. You are nothing like The Storm King.”
It was also Uki that started taking her on trips to the surface, letting her feel the weather, the sky, the wind and her connections to them. At first Cirrus was reluctant, worried that her father would find her, worried that this was another way she could be like him, but Mother Ice refused to listen to her. “The sky is a part of you,” she told her daughter. “Don’t cut yourself off out of fear.”
Cirrus might have complained more but being outside felt so good. It was like part of her soul was stretching out and connecting. So she said nothing and they’d make the journey outside regularly. Slowly she mastered her abilities. Going back underground was a pain but her family waiting for her there made it worth it.
And so, together, they persevered.
Until one day they got a message.
Deep underground they had been protected but above ground a harsh and dark winter had been raging with no ending in sight. Somehow a messenger found out where they were and came seeking Uki. He was wrapped in furs like she was but shed them as soon as he could. He and Mother Ice talked together for a while and then he went away.
That night they all gathered in the livingroom and Uki told them what had been told to her. Years ago a threat had arisen in the north and she had stopped it. Now it had returned, long before it was expected and her village had sought her out
“It’s my responsibility,” she told them. “I have to go.”
Kaolinite got up and embraced her, kissing her. “You don’t have to do this by yourself,” she told the other woman. “We’ll all go.”
And so, together, they prepared, some gathering and organising provisions, Kaolinite working on tools they’d need in her smithy. Grampa Kernowite helped them pack, made sure that they were all well provisioned and gave them big hugs. He and Kaolinite embraced for the longest, for they had been parted before and knew the pain it would bring. But they also had been reunited and knew that they would be again.
“We’ll be back,” Kaolinite promised. And then they left.
The going wasn’t easy. Snow lay thick on the ground and more joined it every day. However Cirrus found that she had some control over the weather and was able to ease their way. Uki was used to walking through snow and instructed them in the best way to do it. Together they made good progress.
But the further they went the more withdrawn Eos became. Her happy words became infrequent and she would spend hours just walking, not communicating with anyone, just staring haunted into the distance.
“We’re close, aren’t we?” Uki asked her one night. Eos grunted non-committedly, so the other woman continued. “We should go and see them. We have time and it would be good for you.”
Mother Metal looked at her wife with fear in her eyes. “But what if they drive me out again?”
“Then we will leave and think of them no longer. But you owe it to yourself to see if they’ve changed.”
Eos didn’t say anything else that night but the next day she took the lead and they headed in a slightly different direction.
By and by they came to a village. To Cirrus it looked identical to the others they’d passed through but Eos looked at it as if it was a dangerous beast, waiting to devour them. But Uki took her hand and she took a deep breath and led them through the scattered buildings to where a blacksmiths’ bordered on a house. She knocked on the door and after a while it opened.
The man looking back at them was clearly the blacksmith. He had the same general physique as Eos, with broad shoulders and thick, muscular arms. Life had carved deep lines into his face, beneath his brown hair and around brown eyes so like Mother Metal. He stared at Eos with shock for a moment, as another woman, his wife, came to see who was at the door.
“Eos,” the blacksmith breathed and then he threw himself at her in a hug. His wife joined them a moment later.
And her family got a little bigger.
They stayed there for a few days, healing and learning about one another anew. The weaver and the blacksmith were full of tearful apologies for how they had behaved, devastated that they had lost their daughter. Eos listened to these words and embraced them afterwards. They didn’t fix the past but it made it easier to face the future.
Sadly the winter waited for no man and, freshly provisioned and with hearts now full of good cheer, they left once again, promising to return.
They travel for almost a week before a flash of light cut through the night in front of them and they found themselves before a curious sight. A lighthouse, in the middle of a forest, the beam of it’s light swinging carefully through the darkness. They climbed the hill to its base together and knocked on the door.
The man who answered the door was a wizard according to Eos but he didn’t look like one to Cirrus. He wore a belt of tools and a leather apron instead of the robes that she would have thought and he had thinning brown hair instead of a glorious white mane and beard. But his eyes were kind when he greeted the travellers, beckoned them inside and made them comfortable.
“How can I help?” he asked while they drank from warm mugs of soup.
“You might not remember,” Eos began. “But many years ago you asked me to make you a heart.”
“Ah, the bronze worker,” the wizard replied. “You did excellent work.”
“Thank you. But now I’m here to ask you a favour. We must get to the far north as quickly as possible, to help stop this winter. Can you help?”
The wizard thought about it for a moment then smiled. “You’re in luck,” he said. “And right on time.”
They spent the rest of the night and the following day resting, enjoying being inside where it was warm and comfortable. Then that night he took them up to the top of the tower, where the beckoning light turned and flashed. They stood there, staring out into the darkness while the snow fell around them, thick white flakes that flashed in the light and then were gone. After a while Cirrus felt something approach through the air, something that felt like no cloud she’d ever encountered, too thick and solid.
It wasn’t a cloud and suddenly a ship was there, balanced impossibly on thin air. Details came sparingly with every flash of the light. One flash showed the sky blue hull, another the green sails, a third the name, The Emerald Queen, and the last the crew, dressed in long, blue coats and running about, getting ready to dock.
“This should get you north,” the wizard told the family.
“No, we can’t,” the captain of the ship said a little later. They were sitting together in the wizard’s bedroom while the rest of the crew were running up and down the stairs outside. “The wind is blowing from the north and we can’t sail against it. In this weather we might not even be able to leave. I’m seriously considering staying here until the winter is past.”
“This winter will never pass,” Uki told him. “Unless we get north.”
“I’m sorry,” the captain replied. “But we can’t get you there.”
The two glared at each other until Cirrus spoke up.
They both turned to look at her, surprised for she was quiet and rarely spoke. She inwardly quailed under their stares but kept talking. “I am the daughter of The Storm King. I can feed the wind into your sails if you will take us there.”
“It seems the easiest way to solve this problem,” the wizard said from where he’d been sitting quietly, watching the discussion. The captain stared at Cirrus with calculating eyes.
“If you can do what you say then we have a deal,” he finally said. “This winter is bad for business and we’ll all be for the better if you can stop it.”
And so they join the crew. The next day they went to board and saw the wizard standing on board talking to a man in a wheelchair and a woman made of metal. The woman considered them as they came on deck, her hair dyed the green of the sails, a sword sheathed at her waist while the hilt of another poked over her shoulder. On her left breast Mother Metal’s maker mark stood out prominently.
“Did you make her?” Cirrus asked her mother but the blacksmith shook her head.
“She made the heart that powers that body,” the wizard said. “Serafina came to me a sword that slotted into what you see before you. The mark appeared on its own over time.”
Serafina glared at Mother Metal in such a way that Mother Ice edged in front of her wife, one hand on the cursed dagger. Then, without a word she turned and stalked off. The man, who was a mechanic called Malcolm apologised. “She’s had a hard time of it and is not fond of her body,” he explained. “Just leave her alone.”
The rest of the packing went fine and the wizard said his goodbyes and left, casting off the ropes that bound The Emerald Queen to the lighthouse. The captain made a tour to ensure everything was shipshape then turned to the Cloud girl. “Shall we be off?”
Cirrus grabbed at the wind and bent it to her will. The prow turned to the north and, with a gust, they were away!
It was slow going. Cirrus could feed the sails but only if she stayed on deck. When she was too tired or cold they had to drop anchor while she went below decks to recover. Her mothers would spend time with her when they could, or the mechanic in the wheelchair would carve her wooden figurines but her most consistent companion was Serafina, the metal woman. She was constantly on deck, keeping watch, helping to furl and reef the sails, practising with her sword. But most of the time she walked the railing, her eyes ever outward.
“What are you looking out for?” Cirrus asked her one time while she was carefully threading wind into the sails.
“Sky pirates,” the sword said to her. She wasn’t sure whether that was a joke or not but spent the rest of the trip sending fearful looks to at the abyss beyond the ships’ railings.
Eventually, slower than they’d have liked but far, far quicker than if they’d walked, they came to the far north and the village that waited for them. The village whose name meant First Warning.
The ship didn’t stay long after they disembarked, let down on bosuns seats to the ground below. Once it was unloaded it turned south and was snatched away by the wind. Cirrus, Eos and Uki turned to see the villagers who came to greet them.
Most of them were welcoming and happy to see them but not the elders. They began lambasting Uki, right there in the ice and snow.
“You shouldn’t have left,” they said.
“I needed to,” she replied.
“We needed you here for when this happened again. We needed our Hero.”
“I would have wasted away here, torn by inner turmoil. There was no place for me here, waiting for something that could never have come.”
“But come it did,” they told her.
“I’m here to set things right,” she finished and would say no more.
That evening the sun set but it didn’t rise the next morning.
They set out into the cold and darkness. Eos had prepared for this, in her forge, and they clutched handwarmers deep in their pockets, strapped snow shoes to their feet and walked across the frozen plains, tied together and heading ever northward. Days past without notice, the dark making them meaningless. At night they huddled together in their tent, the spark of the fire the only light they would see. Every day was just like the last and nothing was different.
Until one day it was.
The glaciers rose before them like a slow wave, cresting the horizon and threatening to bury everything they knew. The ice walls looked eternal and unbreachable but Uki had beaten them before. It hadn’t been without cost but she had grown in ability and experience. And this time she wasn’t alone.
And so Uki made the climb but she did it with bronze climbing spikes that Eos had specially made. Only the tip was her special bronze and would sink in easily before the water froze around it. She did it with a rope around her waist, fastened to each spike she drove in and with her wife and daughter holding the other end. So when she did fall, near the top with the end in sight, her family was there to catch her.
First Eos then Cirrus came after her, carefully tying the rope on and half climbing, half being pulled up. They rested at the top, on the frozen sea where curls of waves lurked under the blanket of snow. Then they set off again, to the castle of ice that appeared in the distance.
“Almost there,” Uki muttered, almost to herself. She said it to be reassuring but it came out like a dark promise.
They crossed the sea, tripped and sliding but not falling, with the mocking call of the wind swirling around them. They reached the castle, a beautiful building made of ice. Uki said there was marble bones supporting it but if there was Cirrus couldn’t see them, just flawless prisms of green, purple and blue. Up the stairs they went and through the doors, following the wind. Uki took the lead, knew the way and they passed the frozen wonders of architecture like they weren’t there. The voice on the wind changed, turning from mocking laughter to tears.
Then they were in the throne room and the source of the winter, of all the hardship was before them.
Not on the throne but beside it, curled in a ball of white fur, hair and sadness. A little girl, sobbing her heart out.
Cirrus stared at the girl and saw herself, who she had once been, lost and alone and scared.
Her mothers’ stepped forward, Metal and Ice, different but the same.
“You have been causing these storms, this winter.” One said. It didn’t matter which, for they were both united in this.
“You have hurt people. You are hurt yourself.”
“But that doesn’t matter. We are here now. We are here for you.”
They both smiled and warm that had nothing to do with the seasons and everything to do with love filled the room. “We will take care of you, our daughter will teach you to control your powers.”
“You are safe. You are loved.”
“You won’t be alone any more.”
Cirrus looked down at the girl who would become her sister.
“Don’t worry,” Cirrus said. “We’re here for you now.”
The girl of ice got up from where she was crying on the floor and embraced the girl of storms. They held each other close, sharing the pain and reassurance. Slowly the women of metal and cold joined them, enfolding them in protection and love.
Who am I? Wish I knew. But for the moment I’m going by Serafina.
I started life not as the woman you see before you but as a sword, a consciousness gradually awakening over time. I don’t know how common that is, a sword awakening. We’re not a chatty lot, the only time we talk is when we meet in combat. But then we sing.
I had a wielder back then, a man named Eric. He would talk to me and appreciate me, even when I couldn’t talk back. I grew to love him, his firm hand on my hilt and the sure way he swung me. And once I could communicate with him, he came to love me back.
Because suddenly he started talking about me having a body. A human one, not my sword self. I thought what we had was personal, two being working on concert but it somehow wasn’t enough for him. He wanted me to give that up, to stop being a sword, to become something else.
I wasn’t sure. I was happy as I was. But I also loved him. If that was what he wanted maybe changing myself wouldn’t be so bad.
I didn’t even understand how it would be possible but Eric was always capable at getting his way. There was a wizard at that time in the west. Eric heard about him and took me to him, asking him to make a body for me. I wasn’t as aware of my surroundings when I was a sword. I could feel anything that touched me and I could talk to my holder but that was it. So when I was suddenly handed to someone else and another voice talked to me it was a shock.
“Are you sure you want me to make you a body, a different form to this one?” The wizard asked me.
And I replied I want my wielder to be happy. This is what he wants.
With those words I sealed my fate.
The work on my body went quickly. Barely a month later I was again in the wizard’s hands, passing over my new vessel. I didn’t really have much of an opinion on it, who was I to judge a body when I’d never had one? One final time he asked me, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
I’m sure, I told him, like a fool. I want to do this.
Then I was inserted and there was pain.
I don’t think humans realise just how much the world is. I had senses now and they were bombarded, all of them. There was smell first of all, a completely alien sensation telling me all about what was around me whether I wanted it to or not. I had a mouth and it was filled with copper. Unfocused light blazed through my eyes and thunder pounded through my ears. The silk of my clothing grated upon my skin and the table was rough and solid beneath me, gravity pressing me down into it.
And then something I recognised. A hand in mine, one I knew intimately. Eric.
I focused on that, letting it be my anchor. Slowly the confusion of the universe died down, became manageable. I was able to focus on him and see his face for the first time. It was handsome, I suppose, symmetrical and all that. But it wasn’t as important as his hand in mine.
He helped me to my feet and we went outside, gods, the light inside had been dim, and started down the hill. I could see that we’d been inside a lighthouse in the middle of a forest but I didn’t think to question it. I was too busy taking it all in, the colours of the trees, the sounds of the wind through the leaves. The five men with clubs who suddenly blocked our path.
My wielder had been an amazing swordsman, killing many people in duels or less dignified fights. But now he was without a sword, I was trapped inside this useless body, and the loved ones of some that he had killed had caught up with him.
He tried to talk his way out of it. It didn’t work.
I don’t want to talk about what happened next. I can barely remember it, just a blur of emotions, fear, pain, sorrow.
I came back to myself kneeling beside Eric’s still body as the wizard found me. He didn’t say anything. Just helped me to my feet and back to the lighthouse.
The wizard buried Eric where he fell, sheathing him in the earth. He would take me out to see him once a day and I’d just sit numbly beside the grave for hours at a time. Everything was too much, the sensations without and the emotions within. I was a doll, not needing any sustenance. I would probably have just sat slumped by the grave for the rest of time if not for the wizard.
He encouraged me to get up each day, to practise moving, to practise being. I still found walking hard and sensations still overwhelmed me but he helped me work on it. Apart from the time I spent by the grave he would talk to me, in low murmurs to begin with so I wouldn’t get over stimulated. He set me at a table and had me chop vegetables and cut meat for meals while he sat across from me and worked on other tasks. It helped with my dexterity and slowly I got better. The textures of the food was harder to get used to in some way, the sliminess of the meat, the rigidness of the carrot that echoed with a crack when it was cut. And yet slowly I began to notice it less, to dial down the loudness of the world. But every day was hard.
“Can I go back?” I asked the wizard at one point. “I just want to be a sword again.”
He sat down with me and, very gently, explained that my soul was now split between the sword in the sheath in my back and the rest of my body. He talked about co-efficients and balanced harmonies and a lot of other things I didn’t understand. All I got out of it was that I was trapped. This was who I was now.
I had to find something to motivate me and I went traditional. Revenge.
The day I decided to hunt down those that had killed Eric stays sharp in my mind. It wasn’t anything personal, though I’m sure it felt that way. But it gave me a reason to pick myself up whenever I fell.
It was also the day that I changed out of my clothes for the first time. I’d been wearing the same silken dress since I’d got this body and it was beginning to get in the way. It tugged and slid over my skin in uncomfortable ways, binding my legs if I moved wrong. The wizard dragged out some simple homespun clothes and apologised that he didn’t have anything finer.
“I have some blue dye,” he said. “I could pretty them up a bit.”
I hesitated. I didn’t really care about the clothes but it had given me an idea.
“My hair is made of silk,” I said to him. “Could you dye that blue instead?”
He looked at me. I’m not very good at reading body language but I’m fairly sure he was thinking it was a terrible idea. But then he smiled.
“Of course. Just let me get it set up.”
I hadn’t chosen anything about my body, not really. Not what I looked like or even if I wanted to be a woman. But I chose this. And, standing in front of a mirror in my new clothes and my sky blue hair, I felt just a little bit more comfortable in myself.
I worked hard and soon I was able to focus through the distractions and toddle about the lighthouse. I no longer needed the wizard to take me out to the grave but I also didn’t spend as much time there. I had a purpose and would not be distracted.
I learned to walk and then I learned to run. It wasn’t easy, I fell a lot and acquired some dents in my face from hateful roots. But I did it.
It wasn’t enough.
The wizard looked at me strangely when I asked for a sword but he didn’t ask questions. By then I was able to move easily, steady on my feet. I could run, skip, climb the stairs and I’d taken over cooking. But that wouldn’t do me any good when I found those murders. I needed to fight.
The first thing I learned was that swords are not naturally graceful. I suppose I was lucky. Eric was a master and in his hands I swam through the air. With me, my sword flopped like a stranded fish. It was heavy and unbalanced, wavering where it should have been steady. It was like trying to learn to walk again.
And just like then persistence was the key. I practised day after day, how to stand, how to hold it, how to attack. I was lucky, I suppose I had learned something from being wielded by Eric because there was a feeling of rightness when I did something correctly. It came rarely at first but I focused on it and it started coming more and more often until I could move and it would seem like my sword and I were one.
And every time I sheathed it I thanked it for it’s work. I didn’t know if it was like me and conscious but it never hurt to be polite.
It took a year and a half before I was happy with my movements and that I could properly complete my mission. Well I was confident I could kill the men when I found them. Finding them might be a problem, I am face blind and find it hard to tell humans apart, but I was sure I’d be able to do it. I had all the time in the world.
I was just getting ready to leave when the boy came.
To be more exact I was in the middle of leaving. I had learned long ago why the wizard lived in a lighthouse. It was a port for sky ships, some far-flung outpost of a trading empire where they could refuel or repair. They came on schedule and one night, when the latest one was due, I slipped out and away. It slept wrong to sneak away like a thief, especially after all the wizard had done for me, but I didn’t like the idea of saying goodbye.
The trees were closing in around me when the sky ship floated by overhead. As usual it appeared with a suddenness that was disconcerting but I had gotten used to it. Not everyone got the chance.
I heard a harsh whinny and then the shattering of branches and something crashed away, followed by a final sounding thump. Curious despite myself I want to investigate.
There lay a boy, collapsed like a marionette with it’s strings cut. I thought for a moment he could see me but that must have been the moonlight glittering on his eyeballs. There was no sign of the horse, it must have bolted, throwing off its rider. I stared at him for a while, thinking. No one would know I had been there. I could go off on my quest and leave him here. The wizard might find him in the morning or he could regain consciousness and walk there himself. There was nothing tying me here.
Eric wouldn’t have hesitated but I am not my old wielder.
I gathered him up and brought him back to the tower. I could always leave later.
The wizard fussed around him, asking me to put him in the bed that was left on the ground floor for visitors. I carefully laid him down then stepped back. It was a few hours before the boy woke up and I learned that no, he wouldn’t have walked here in the morning. He couldn’t walk at all. That’s why he had come, seeking help from the wizard.
The wizard offered to let him stay here while he made the boy a wheelchair while I thought over this revelation. He would have died, alone and unnoticed in the forest if I had followed my impulse and left. Just like Eric.
Then the wizard said my name and I looked up to see him beckoning me over. As I walked to the bed he told the boy, “She was the one who found you.”
The boy gaped up at me, gratitude that I didn’t deserve on his face, I think. “Th..thank you,” he stammered.
It was too much. I left.
The wizard found me a bit later, kneeling by Eric’s grave. “I know you were planning on leaving,” he started in his no nonsense manner. “And obviously I can’t stop you. But I’d like to ask you to stay for a bit. I might need help with the boy and you’re stronger than I am. Please?”
I thought about it, remembering that moment when I was just going to leave him there. To die.
“I’ll stay if he needs me,” I told the wizard. “But I don’t know what help I’ll be.”
He nodded and went back inside. I stayed where I was until the sun rose. Then I got up and went back inside.
The boy’s name turned out to be Malcolm. He was good at whittling, attentive while the wizard showed him how he was putting together his wheelchair and terrible at cooking. The first time he tried he filled the room with smoke and started a fire that I had to put out. After that I agreed to teach him what I knew and, like when I started, I put him to preparing vegetables.
I would stand cooking, watching his nimble hands cutting carrots or lean against the wall while he talked to me and carved wooden figurines. His hands were fascinating to me, always moving or busy, always expressive. He would pause what he was doing to make a joke or start carving extra carefully when he was angry. I was able to read him much better than anyone else. He almost reminded me of Eric. Not that they were anything alike really but I’d connected with him through his hands as well.
After a month the chair was completed and I started getting ready to once again leave. I thought that Malcolm would go home and there’d be nothing tying me here anymore. I still had my mission. I was going to avenge my wielder.
Then the wizard said that Malcolm still had to learn how to use the chair and, though he didn’t say it, that I had to stay. And I did. I had vowed, after all, to say as long as he needed me.
And I tried to ignore the little voice in my head, calling me a traitor for being so happy about that.
Working with Malcolm was hard. I decided to help train him, after all I’d also had to learn a new way of moving, but I wasn’t a particularly good teacher and he wasn’t a good student. He fell to the floor and I’d pick him up, again and again and again, until he’d get angry.
But he always apologised, which I wasn’t expecting, and used that anger to work twice as hard. Soon he was able to get himself in and out of the chair with ease and glide across the floor smoothly and without hesitation. One night I was watching him wheel around and I don’t know what came over me. But I stepped forward and asked, “Want to dance?”
He looked surprised to be asked but I stretched out my hand to him and he took it. His fingers were sure and covered in calluses, though in different places to Eric’s. Slowly I led him around, then back again. I twirled away and he followed. Slowly, without talking, the dance evolved.
I hadn’t realised how much I’d missed dancing with another person, moving in harmony with them. It wasn’t perfect, there was stumbling and missed directions, but it didn’t have to be. I felt a part of my soul unclench and happiness spread through me. Only as long as the dance, but that was enough.
Once we’d finished I looked at him, my eyes beaming, and said, “You can move beautifully.” Then I remembered what the dance signified. “Will you be leaving now?”
I saw the confusion in his eyes, the uncertainty. But before he could answer the wizard spoke. I hadn’t even realised that he was watching.
“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…”
Malcolm spun in place and then shot forward, enfolding the other man in a tight hug. Over Malcolm’s head I could see the question in the wizard’s eyes. Would I stay too?
And it was then that I put aside my revenge.
We all stayed together for another six weeks. The wizard had said that it was to convert the lighthouse and they did that. But it was just an excuse and we all knew. He began teaching the boy his trade and Malcolm took to it with ease and joy. I would still practise daily on my sword work but only to make sure I didn’t become rusty, not for any real purpose. The rest of the time I cooked and helped when needed.
Then came the storm.
A ship was due that night and the wizard was up on the roof getting the lamp set up when the lightning bolt hit. The lamp exploded and he was flung down the stairs. I managed to get to him, get him to bed and then get Malcolm. He regained consciousness once and begged us to fix the lamp. Then he sank back into a darkness I feared he would never rise from.
I thought that it was a lost cause but Malcolm wouldn’t hear of it. Even though I had to carry him up the stairs, away from his wheelchair and into the wildness of the night, he didn’t hesitate but got stuck in. We worked through the night, focused on the same task, two beings joined together through will alone. It was like being with Eric again, only constructing instead of destroying.
We managed to get it fixed just in time. The ship came safely into port and the day was saved.
A week later, a week filled with fixing and mending for all of us, and we were in the wizard’s quarters. The ship’s surgeon had nursed him back to health and, though he was still a little shaky, he was almost back to his old self.
He laid out his news quickly. The ship’s mechanic had been impressed with the work that Malcolm had done and offered him a job on the ship when it departed. Malcolm would be able to leave, to see the world in a way that he could never have dreamed off, to be free.
And yet, he hesitated. I don’t know what held him back but when he complained about not knowing anyone there I found myself talking.
“I could go with you,” I said. Then I realised what I’d said and added awkwardly, “If you want.”
He looked at me, broken in a way I didn’t understand. And then he spoke his true fear. That he wouldn’t be good enough.
We laughed at that, the wizard and I. What else could we do? He had been here mere months but I felt like I’d seen him grow up, and that I’d grown along with him. He’d accomplished so much. And he thought this was beyond him? After our laughter we kindly told him what we thought of that!
And so, together, the boy and I joined the crew of the sky ship The Emerald Queen.
She was beautiful. The bottom of her hull was painted sky blue, the same colour as my hair and the boy’s wheelchair cushion. The name was painted in golden cursive near her prow, where a figurehead nested in the shape of an eagle. The sails were as green as her name, stretching out above and to the side of the deck. She was graceful, despite her size. We gathered our luggage, what there was of it. I only had my sword, the clothes I wore and the wooden figurines Malcolm had carved for me. He had even less. We stood on the main deck, amid the bustle and shouting and, as we lifted off, I once again became disorientated.
I thought I’d gotten past this but everything was happening all at once and it was overwhelming and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t focus, I was being overwhelmed! I grasped for Malcolm’s hand and clutched it tight. I thought he looked at me, probably confused, but he didn’t pull away, only held on. I focused on that and a beat I drummed into my leg with my other hand and slowly I was able to clear the confusion. Together we stepped down into the cabin while the ship took flight, leaving our old life behind.
I hated the next few weeks. In the lighthouse I had understood my place in the world. I had a routine and a job. But on the ship I was surplus. There was nothing for me to do. I started with helping in the kitchen but they already had a cook and he had an assistant and there was no place for me. My sword was taken away from me when I tried to practise with it on the deck. They claimed it was something about regulations and that I wasn’t trained properly but when I asked to be trained they turned me away. I realised that they saw me as luggage, something that Malcolm had brought on board and not a person in my own right.
The boy kept me company, telling me about his day and occasionally I would help in the engine room. But I had neither his skill, nor his interest in the subject. I found myself spending more and more time in the hold by his hammock, turning my thoughts over and over in my mind
What was I? A emotional crutch for Malcolm? A doll that could sit in the corner and say things for someone else amusement? Just another object? Was that all I was destined to be? I refused. I would just have to get off at the next port. Maybe go back to hunting down the men that had killed Eric. Malcolm would be fine. He made friends quickly and he hadn’t needed me along in the first place. He was just scared.
I was brooding over these questions when the pirates attacked.
They came in the middle of the night, in balloons that swam up from the inky depths of the sky. The watch was cut down and then they swarmed down below decks.
They were all gathered up, the crew, and herded into the hold where I was sitting. We were surrounded by gold toothed grins and rusty swords. A part of me sniffed in derision at the state of them but most of me was concerned for Malcom, who was thrown to the ground from his hammock.
I was unarmed. That amused me a little, an unarmed sword. As the pirates advanced on us, clearly ready to start killing any dissenters I focused. My body was steel. I would be able to get through this.
Then Malcolm thrust himself in front of me.
“Get behind me, Serafina,” he shouted. “I’ll hold them off for as long as I can.”
I stared at the back of his head for a moment, marvelling at the ridiculousness of that statement. Hold them off? He’d barely last a second. A single cut from one of those substandard swords would end him. And yet he was still trying to protect me. Why?
Because, I realised, he valued me more than he valued himself. And he would defend what was important to him.
I finally understood my purpose.
I was a sword.
I drew myself.
It felt wrong, so terribly, terribly wrong. I was a sword and I was a body and being two things at the same time was painful! And yet still I attacked.
The years of practise came to my body, allowing it to move fluidly, to slice. And my sword knew exactly where it was supposed go. I shattered the weak blades before me, casting the pirates back. They swung at me and I dodged, more nimble than Eric had ever been, more direct in my thrusts.
Thirty pirates came down into the hold. Fifteen made it out and I was hot on their heels. But the longer I was drawn the higher rose the pain until I was acting more on instinct than anything else. My senses were beginning to go one by one, and I could feel my life force guttering.
I don’t know how many pirates escaped, scampering into their balloons and away into the night. But it wasn’t many.
And then I collapsed, sinking down into blackness in a mirror of those I’d just driven off.
I came back lying in a hammock. I never slept and so had no cause to lie in one before. It was a very strange sensation and I would probably have remarked more on it but Malcolm’s face swam into view. He was sat on a high stool where he could watch over me, whittling something while he waited. I must have made a sound or movement because he abandoned his work and grabbed my hand.
“Serafina,” he cried. “Are you ok?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. I’ve never known, not really. But right there, with his hand in mine, I thought I was.
No moment could last forever though and after some shouting and running out of sight another face appeared, supported by a magnificent uniform and topped with a ha.. It wasn’t the captain, he hadn’t survived the attack, but it was the first mate, now in command.
“I’m sorry, Serafina,” he said. “We misjudged you. We all thought that you were some project of the wizard’s and….”
He trailed off awkwardly and then held up a sword. It was mine, the one that they’d taken off me.
“You saved us,” he continued. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. I know that we have no right to ask this of you, considering how we discarded you up until now, but I’m asking if you will protect us again. Take up this sword and join this crew properly?”
I was tempted to say no, just to spite him. That I wasn’t just another tool. But everyone needs a purpose. And for the moment, this fitted me very well.
“I will,” I told him, Malcolm’s hand still in mine.
And so that was my job. I helped where needed and, when I wasn’t I walked the deck, practising with my sword, dancing with Malcolm and guarding the future. And usually I did nothing. But not always.
In a perfect world, a sword is very rarely drawn. But it always has the potential to be.
Who am I? I’m still not sure. But for the moment I’m happy going by Serafina.
Like all cats I was born knowing that I was special.
I was one, and of course the best, of a litter of seven kittens. For the first few weeks of my life my mother nursed us and told us of our purpose. All cats have a purpose, of course. Only lesser creatures don’t. Some of us are ratters, some are companions. My purpose was of great importance. I was to be a witch’s cat! I would be sent to a witch, who would give me a task to fulfill.
My mother told us about other things, the world in general and our place in it. Cats are beings of balance. We walk the line between the Wild and the humans, we stalk through the shadows of the world, our own masters who chose help humans in matters they can’t navigate.
When I was old enough I left my mother and stepped through the ways secret to cats until I found my witch. By this point I was fully in my power, master of all I surveyed, a full ten weeks old!
It was nearing the end of the day when I arrived at the home of the Witch of the Heartwoods. My mother had heard about her from her witch and knew her to be sensible and of proper import for one such as me. I stepped from the shadows and saw the witch sitting in a rocking chair in front of her house, sipping tea and watching the colour fade from the sky. I roared mightily to let her know I was there and she looked up, a smile bursting across her face.
“Well hello there,” she said, coming across and kneeling in front of me as was proper. “And what is your name?”
I ignored her, washing my face to show what I thought of such impertinence. Everyone knows that a cat’s true name is secret. Then I looked up at her and roared again.
“What a cute meow,” she said and gathered me up. I would have protested but she was very warm and comfy and the journey had tired me somewhat. She took me inside and fed me water and some fish. After that I was given a cushion, upon which I fell asleep.
And so I was a witch’s cat.
It was very boring.
The witch did not often get visitors, living so deep in the woods. Those she did have were barely worth my attention and I often didn’t greet them myself. The house was well appointed, with a lot of plush seats to sleep on, but the trees grew so tall that there were rarely enough sunbeams in which to sprawl. She also had her own way of doing magic and didn’t need my assistance. I was wasted here and I could see the witch agreed, though she fulfilled her side of things with regular offerings of food and strokes.
The day all of this changed and I was given a purpose I was napping in the back room of the witch’s house. I heard the visitors come in and the bustle as my witch supplied them with that tea drink but couldn’t be bothered rousing myself to investigate. I would have probably dozed through their whole visit if the witch hadn’t coming into the back to find me.
“Kitten,” she said respectfully, “I have a task for you. The family out there have a girl who must venture out into the dangerous woods. I want you to go live with them and, when she leaves, go with her and protect her.”
I yawned to show her how I felt about her waking me. “You want me to leave?” I asked.
“Of course not,” the witch replied earnestly. She was at least intelligent enough to understand Cat, even if she couldn’t speak it. “I love having you here. I simply feel that this is a better use of your time. This is a quest worthy of you.”
The idea of a quest did intrigue me and, as I had mentioned, I was getting bored. So I agreed, the witch picked me up and brought me through to the other room.
I saw my new family.
Frankly I wasn’t impressed.
There were three of them, parents and their kit. The parents looked old, whereas the girl was barely in her teen years. She was the one I had to protect and no surprise, being so young and small.
She did have comfortable arms though and she held me close as was proper upon being handed me. I focused on her and missed what the parents were saying to my witch. However I did hear them say, “So when danger appears it’ll grow big and frightening or….?”
The audacity of them! Thankfully my witch set them straight with a smile.
“No, it is what it is. This will keep your daughter safe.”
By this time they must have seen more of my majesty or the sheer obviousness of the statement had finally gotten through to them. Either way they said nothing more, just thanked my witch and took me to my new home.
Much though I felt it demeaning to be in a common store, far beneath my station, I had to admit that it was much comfier than the witch’s hut. The shop and attached house were spacious, with lots of interesting nooks and crannies to investigate. There were many of the much missed sunbeams and they were quick to feed me, though they had to be reminded from time to time.
It was while I was patrolling my new domain that I heard them discussing the problems in the forest. Apparently some wolves and some bandits had moved into the area. It was no wonder that they needed me to protect the girl. Just being around the house must have made them feel safer.
Eventually the day came when the girl needed to make her next delivery. She packed a rucksack, shucked on a green cloak and picked up a basket, which was the perfect place for me to ride in. Then we set off.
The forests have a wild beauty all of their own. The sun dappling through the leaves and the swaying of the basket combined to have an almost soporific effect. It was tempting to fall asleep but I had a duty to protect the girl. Luckily I was a cat and we have the ability to doze while being completely aware of our surroundings.
The day wore on, the girl visiting five different houses of people who didn’t interest me. They looked at me, uncertain and awed by my magnificence, as was only right. Nothing of particular note happened and eventually we started walked back.
Which is when I noticed the wolf.
It was lurking on the side of the path, just a little further on. The girl, with her substandard sight, hearing and sense of smell, was unaware of it. I, of course, could easily defeat it in combat but the girl might get hurt. And unlike properly civilised people she didn’t speak Cat, so I couldn’t warn her. What was I to do?
I was reduced to communicating in the most basic of pantomime. I stood up and stared off the track, away from where the wolf lay in wait. Then, once I was sure I had her attention, I leapt bravely from the basket and led the way to safety.
It seemed that she had gotten the message because I heard her crashing through the undergrowth after me. I had no doubt that the wolf would also be coming after us so I kept up the charge, leading her around unexpected hollows and the worst of hanging branches. This was unsustainable though. Wolves could run faster than her, even if they couldn’t run faster than me, and I had to find a place where it couldn’t get her.
Eventually I both heard and smelt men ahead of me, emphasis on smelt, they were an uncouth bunch but needs must, and led her to them and safety. I decided to let her go first into the clearing where they were making their camp. They would naturally be terrified if I suddenly burst upon them and they were, after all, humans. I dealt with the wild, the girl dealt with the humans.
I knew I had made…well not a mistake, merely a miscalculation, once the girl entered the glade. She reacted to them not in joy, like I’d have expected, but rather in fear. After a few moments I realised that, instead of a gang of smelly but helpful humans, these must have been the bandits that I’d heard of. And they were surrounding the girl.
I was in something of a quandary. Yes, I could just leap into the middle of them and kill them all but there were a lot of them and, again, the girl might get hurt. I was amazing but there was only one of me. There was a chance that a few of the bandits might have enough presence of mind to harm the girl. I needed a large group that would be properly distracting.
I decided to abide by the third law of Cats. If there’s something you don’t particularly want to do, get someone else to do it instead. With that I turned and sped through the forest. Why solve one problem when you can solve two?
It didn’t take me long to find the wolves. I simple had to go back to the path and follow the wolf’s scent back to where they gathered. It was a large pack, several families all gathered together, probably as many as the bandits were. I decided to make an impression upon them. A proper introduction can solve all sorts of problems.
I appeared in front of the pack of wolves like a ghost, unseen but feared, and roared. Heads turned and a large wolf that must have been the alpha stalked over to me.
“What do you want, little morsel?” he growled. “Speak before we snap you up!”
I understand that some leaders need to make themselves feel more important but really. If I hadn’t needed him I would have struck him down on the spot. “I come baring a warning,” I told him. “There are men not far from here that are coming to hunt you. You must attack them first!”
A low chuckle broke from his jaws. “Oh, must we? And why is that?”
“Because if you don’t they will hunt and kill you all! I will do you a favour and lead you to them but you will owe me.”
The chuckles weren’t just coming from the leader now as the pack gathered around. “I think I’ll just eat you,” the wolf said, leaning close to me and showing his fangs.
I inwardly sighed. Why were some animals unable to listen to reason?
Other methods would have to be used.
I extended my claws and swiped the wolf across the snout.
He recoiled with a satisfyingly high-pitched squeal. The rest of the pack lunged at where I used to be but I was already speeding through the trees. Within a moment I heard a hunting howl and they were after me.
A cat like myself will always be faster than some canines, of course, but I will admit that they were faster than I expected. I had to let them keep me in sight, of course, but they were getting a little closer than I’d planned. We were only halfway to the camp and the howls were uncomfortably close.
It was a surprise when we almost crashed into the bandits. I managed to vanish into the undergrowth just in time but the wolves weren’t as cunning. Both group stopped and stared at each other for a moment.
What were they doing here? Then I saw the girl leading them and realised that she must have somehow figured out my plan. Maybe she wasn’t so bad after all.
The wolves snapped out of their confusion first and attacked. Several bandits fell before the rest got their act together and counter attacked. I saw the girl stumble off to the side and vanish as the fight got under way. Just like I’d planned.
I stayed to watch the confrontation play out, hidden safely under a bush. Both group struck at each other with ferocity doubtless born of their inner limitations. While the wolves had gotten first blood the bandits were armed with swords and axes and these fake claws counted for a lot. The fight ground on, more falling on both sides every moment. Eventually the tattered remains of both groups limped away, neither a threat to anyone any longer. Just as I’d planned.
I headed back to the path and waited for the girl there. The day was nice and warm and I was tired after completing my quest in such a final way. So I found a nice sunbeam, curled up and waited for the girl.
Saving the day must have taken more out of me than I had thought because the first that I was aware of the girl’s return was when she picked me up and, holding me close, began to walk back home. The basket had vanished at some point but being carried like this was a nice substitute. I curled up deeper into her arms and purred to let her know that I was satisfied.
The girl held me tight and whispered in my ear, “You may not have done anything to help but I love you anyway.”
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.
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.