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.