The Girl with the Beaten Bronze Hair

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 digging.

And digging.

And hauling the dirt away into the forest, scattering it around so it wasn’t obvious.

And digging.

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.”

“By murder?!”

“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.

The Man and the Sword

There once was a swordsman that loved battle.

From a young age, when he’d been squired to a great knight, he’d always loved to fight. The thrill of besting others, the joy of swinging his sword. Though he was apprenticed to a knightly order he didn’t take vows in the end. Not for him the humility of protection, of serving. He longed only to travel the land, finding others to beat, fighting for whoever would pay him. And so he did.

Fair he was, with flowing golden locks that cascaded down his back like a cloak. His eyes were a piercing blue and his cheeks were smooth as a maidens, no weapon having cut them. But though his looks were unsullied by pain his hands told a different story, with calluses built up from the many duels and fights he had been in, small nicks and imperfections telling a more interesting story than his bland, perfect face. To look at his red lips was to see a man like any other, handsome but still usual. To look at his grip around the hilt of his sword was to see a master.

It was this sword that was his true love. A gift from his old master it was long and shone in the sun when he swung it. The hilt was wrapped leather, worn soft in his hands. He clasped it in his arms when asleep by campfires and in tents and at all other times it hung on his waist. It was the first thing he checked on in the morning and he last thing his sleepy fingers found at night. His highest calling was its care and every day he oiled it, sharpened it and checked it for rust. And in return it never failed him. It swept light and easy in his hand, it cut through armour and the people beneath it. They were a partnership, one being in the moment of combat.

The man knew it as well. Whenever someone praised him on a spectacular win in a duel or cursed him with blood bubbling on their lips his reply was always the same. The same thing he whispered to the weapon every time he won. “Thank the sword.”

And yet, when one day the sword replied to him, he was surprised.

He had been ambushed by five men when walking the border between two kingdoms and surrounded by five corpses he wiped the last of the blood off his blade. “Thank you,” he said before sheathing it.

You’re welcome came the reply, then the hilt hit the scabbard.

The swordsman stopped and looked around, wondering if someone was playing a trick or if he had imagined it. But the words didn’t come again and he was not an imaginative man. Shaking his head he walked on.

The next time the sword spoke to him was after his next fight, in an arena surrounded by baying spectators, on blood soaked sand. He had just disarmed his opponent and was walking back to his corner. “Thank you,” he said to the sword as he slid it away.

You’re welcome.

The voice in his mind was a whisper in the wind, barely heard above the cheers and cries. He looked round briefly then discarded the thought. There was so much noise you could hear whatever you wanted in it.

The third time, however, was in the dead of night. An assassin, a dismissal from a noble that was disappointed there were some problems that a good sword hand couldn’t fix, came upon him as he was sleeping. He was barely able to snatch up the sword when the woman was upon him, blade flashing in the night. Even upon his back though the man was fast and soon his assailant was dead, a snarl forever etched upon her face. Shaking, the swordsman looked at his blade, stained with the reality that he’d survived yet again. “Thank you,” he said sincerely.

You’re welcome the sword replied and this time there could be no doubt that the words had come from the weapon.

Many would panic at this, some would question it. The man just accepted it. He talked to his sword, why shouldn’t it talk back? He continued on as he had been, finding fights and thanking his sword afterwards. And always the reply You’re welcome would come. Occasionally he would joke to others that he had the politest weapon in the realm.

But though outwardly nothing changed the connection between the man and the sword got stronger. He began to sense her when doing drills and practising moves, an awareness observing what he was doing and his surroundings. And eventually the sword began to say other things.

Behind you came in the middle of a fight and the swordsman was able to turn and deflect an attack coming at his back. Thrust it suggested to win a duel. His grip is weak and the opponent’s sword went flying.

And by the day the sword asked a question it wasn’t a surprise.

By this time the sword’s voice had become familiar, a woman’s voice, high and clear like a bell. It rang inside his head as he worked at his morning drills.

Why do you fight?

“I like to win,” he replied.

Why?

“I like the way it makes me feel. It proves that I’m stronger, faster, better than everyone else.” He grinned. “That I have the better sword.”

That seemed to satisfy the sword for she spoke no more that day. But the next time he drew her she asked more questions, about his form and the way that he swung her. Then the next and the next. The questions continued and began to gradually change, from fighting and winning, to about the world around them, to the swordsman himself. He always answered honestly and the questions began to change him. Did he need to have killed that person, when he could have spared them? Was this really what he wanted for the rest of his life? But no matter what he did or where he went, she was right there beside him, asking questions and making him laugh with her comments.

He began to love her, not only as a weapon but as a person. And she loved him back.

“Would that you were a woman,” the swordsman said to her as they lay beside each other one night. “Then we could truly be together.”

Are we not together now? asked the sword.

“Your edges are sharp and can cut me.”

I’m a sword. That’s what we do.

“But wouldn’t it be good to not be like that? If you were a woman I could hold you.”

You hold me now.

“Not in that way.”

There was silence for a moment. It might be nice to be a woman, the sword said at last. But then you wouldn’t have a sword.

“I’d have you. And that would be more than enough.”

And no more was said that night.

There lived in the west at that time a wizard who was said to be able to do many miraculous things. He lived in a lighthouse on a hill, surrounded by forest. The swordman heard of him and went to ask if he could build a body for his sword. The wizard listened, running a hand through his thinning brown hair. Eventually he admitted that it was possible.

“But this will not come cheaply,” the wizard told them.

“I will pay whatever price is necessary,” the swordsman said. “I have money, in gold and precious stones. Whatever you need, I will acquire it.”

“It’s not you who will pay, for it’s not you who has to change. I have to ask your sword. Please pass her to me.”

Slowly the swordman unbuckled his scabbard and handed it over. The wizard drew and addressed the blade.

“Are you sure you want me to make you a body, a different form to this one?”

I want my wielder to be happy, the sword replied. This is what he wants.

The wizard sighed, because that was not what he had asked but he had gotten his answer anyway.

“Very well, I will try making you a body. But you must understand, this is no small thing. It will take more than my magic. However word has reached me of a blacksmith in the east who makes things from bronze that are filled with summer’s heat. I will write to him and ask him to make you a heart.”

“Thank you,” the swordsman said, taking back his sword. “Thank you for everything.”

The wizard sent out a raven with a diagram explaining what he needed and a bag of rubies and then he got to work.

He started with the sheath, for that was where the sword would be inserted to make the body her own. Most sheaths are wood but this one was metal, set with squares of copper. Around this he built the rest. With the scabbard as a backbone he curved ribs of ivory into a chest that he wrapped in steel. The sword would have no need of food so it was thin, more for form than function. The lungs were a pair of bellows, necessary only for the sword to talk, the airway the only tube that rose though the sweeping arch of her neck.

He added arms and legs, strong ones, and then began on the finer details. Her hair was soft threads of silk, her muscles stretched rubber. For the nerves he spun out gold into delicate wire and wove it through the body, a mesh that connected everything from the diamond eyes to the hinged toes.

Finally his raven came back baring the heart and he slotted it reverently in. It went in with a perfect click and life seemed to breath through the body as it started beating. The skin softened, the eyes flickered behind thin lids. It was a marvel, a dainty, sleeping, metal princess that just needed to kiss of steel to awaken it.

It was one of his finest creations but not one he felt good about.

The time came for the sword to gain her new body. The swordsman hung back nervously while the wizard stood over his creation, letting the sword feel it. He could feel her trepidation, her worries.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” the wizard asked her finally. “This is no small thing to change your mind over later, for once you go into this sheath you can never come out again.”

I’m sure, the sword whispered. I want to do this.

“Alright,” said the wizard and slotted her in.

For the first time in its existence the sword knew pain. It had nerves and those nerves were on fire, connections screaming down their lengths. Light, which had always played off her edges like water, was suddenly stabbing into her eyes. The drums in her head were reverberating with the screams that were coming out of her mouth as she drowned in sensations.

Then her hands, she had hands, were caught in a grip she recognised. Firm, careful, with calluses that they had made together. She clung to them and slowly the world around her began to make sense. And for the first time she really saw her wielder. The deep blue eyes that she now saw as beautiful. The soft mouth that seemed confident. And the hands, that anchored her to reality.

“Hello,” she said to him with a smile on her face. He grinned back. “I’m Serafina.”

“Hi Serafina. I’m Eric.”

Hand in hand they left the wizard’s tower, the dawn bronzing the leaves in the forest. A new day before them, a new future, for them to make of it what they wanted. Serafina was unsteady on her feet but Eric was careful, making sure she didn’t trip. He wouldn’t be her crutch for long. In time and distance she would dance.

They didn’t get far, however, when out of the trees stepped an ambush. Five men, all armed with clubs made of broken tree branches. Each had lost a relative or friend to the swordmen and they had banded together to seek revenge. It was just luck that they’d caught up with him here. Their good, his bad.

“I don’t want any trouble,” Eric said to them as they barred his path. “I have given up violence.”

“But that won’t bring back the ones that you killed,” they said to him.

“I have a new purpose in life, being in love.”

“But we loved the ones who died,” came the reply. “We are their retribution.”

It was clear that there would be no talking out of this and Eric had never been as good with his tongue as his weapon. Bravely he stepped forward.

But a swordsman without a sword is just a man and he was one man against five.

And there was nothing Serafina could do. This body was still strange to her and she could barely walk. For once in her life she wasn’t ready for a fight. Without Eric’s support all she could do was fall to her knees and watch.

When the wizard found her later she was knelt by the body of her fallen wielder, her bronze heart full enough to burst. He brought her back to his tower, where it is said that that she lives still. And where else would she go? She had lost her only place in the world.

The Ice Maiden

Once upon a time there was a village that nestled in the far north. Backed by tall mountains to the south it looked across a wide, white plain where reindeer roamed. By day the people who lived there would farm the land, fish in mountain lakes and hunt. By night they would gather together for warmth, carve antlers and sew pelts and watch the northern lights dance in the dark sky. Nobles in the great southern castles would describe life there as ‘idyllic’ or ‘bucolic’ but they didn’t know the strain that hard work put on the bones, nor the dangers from snapping ice and sudden storms. The residents loved their village, in spite of the danger and the hard work that every day brought. They were explorers and, for the good of all the world, heroes.

For the name of the village meant First Warning.

Every few years there arose in the north an Ice Queen. No one knew where they came from but the stories told of the signs. A giant castle of ice would rise, past where the fields of snow met the walls of glaciers, underneath the pole star. The winters would get colder and colder, the nights darker as the years went on until eventually a winter would come with ceaseless snow that would cover the world. Before this a hero would have to set out from First Warning, travel north and kill the Ice Queen. Otherwise all the world would be smothered in an eternal winter.

The signs of this rise were fickle. The elders of the village were tasked with watching for them, as they would be able to best judge when winters were getting harder and when a rise was imminent. But memory is based on perception and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason behind the rises and so sometimes a rise wouldn’t be noticed until it was almost too late.

Which is when our story starts.

The endless night had already started when the elders came for Adlartok. The sun had gone down three nights ago and had not risen. Although the signs before now had been ignored that did not mean that the village had not been prepared. Every generation a hero was chosen and trained and Adlartok was that hero. Tall he stood, and broad, with dark hair and noble bearing. He was the best hunter in the village, brought back the best fish from the hidden lakes and could live out on the ice for weeks at a time. The three elders knocked at his door and were let in by his sister, Uki. In the sitting room they met with Adlartok.

The elders told what he already knew, that the time had come, and what he did not. They gave him a knife from the far south, traded for at great expense. He looked it, the hilt iron, the sheath smooth leather. “I already have a knife,” he told them.

“That is not any weapon,” he was told in return. “It has summer trapped in it.” And indeed, when he unsheathed the blade the air in the room became stiflingly hot, the bronze leaf blade gleaming in the light from the oil lamps. “That is the weapon that will kill the Ice Queen.”

He sheathed the dagger and nodded to the elders. “I’ll set out tomorrow,” he told them. And so they left, talking of how brave Adlartok was, how they’d made the right decision.

It was only Uki, who saw the fear within him.

That night, when he got out his rucksack and started packing, she was right beside him, tall and dark like his shadow. “I’m coming with you,” she told him.

“This is my duty,” he replied, tucking the summer dagger deep into his pack. “It is dangerous.”

“All the more reason for me to come with you,” Uki replied. “I’m your older sister. I helped raise you, I taught you what you know.”

Adlartok laughed. “I’m not a child any more. This is for me to do and me alone.”

His sister looked at him for a moment then silently put away her rucksack. “So be it,” she said.

So the next day they embraced and then he set off alone.

The snow plains stretched out before him and he walked in silence, hunched up in his furs, his big body cutting a path through the packed whiteness. The wind howled around him, sneaking past his hood to run fingers down his cheeks to sink into his bones. Eventually, when he thought that night had come and when he could go on no longer, he made camp, lighting a fire from the small amount of wood he carried.

The next day was the same, and the next, and the next, each blending into each other and he walked across the featureless plain. There was nothing to see, not trees, not the occasional herds of reindeer that he had hunted here before. Just the dark, just the snow that filled in his tracks and fought against him, pushing him gently back as he pushed forward. Every day was just like the last and nothing was different.

Until one day it was.

The landscape in front of him changed, sprouted a dark hill that grew and grew until he reached it. Above him loomed the ice walls of the glaciers. He stood looking at them for a while then made camp for the night. He knew he’d need all his strength come the morning. After eating by the fire he finally looked back the way he’d come. The trail he’d made was almost filled in and he could see the lights of his home village, far across the plain. And closer, like a falling star, he thought he could see a small ember of a fire. But snow started falling and blew a flurry across his face and when it was gone so had the ember. He stared after it for a time then turned round and crawled into his tent.

He started early the next morning. The elders had spoken to him of this and he knew that he was finally close. Once he was at the top of the glaciers he’d be able to see the palace of ice. It was just a few hours walk away. Once he was at the top of the glaciers.

Out of his bag he pulled a pouch of iron spikes. Around a wrist he hung a small hammer. Into the ice walls he pounded first one spike then another, then a third above them. Testing to make sure they took his weight he stepped up onto them, grabbed the third and pulled himself close to the wall. It sucked at him, pulling away his heat but he ignored that and brought out another spike, pushing it into the ice and then hitting with the hammer. It proved sturdy and like this he slowly made his way up the wall.

It wasn’t smooth, this ice, but craggy and pitted. It reminded Adlartok of the mountains of home, the ridges and hollows that allowed purchase for hands. It took him hours but slowly he managed to make his way up. At last he raised his head and saw the sky above him, the top of the glacier closer than he could have imagined.

The end was in sight. He laughed, glad that he was almost there.

Then the ice crumbled beneath his last spike and Adlartok fell.

The snow itself was soft but the ice it shallowly covered was hard and it broke the hero when he hit it. Big fluffy flakes landed on him, soft as kisses on his cheeks. The world grew dark and the snow grew warm. And Adlartok died.

Either an hour or an eternity later, it didn’t matter which, Uki came and stood over him. The snow was still falling thick and she had to dig with her gloved hands, tears freezing on her face, until she could uncover him. She held him, one last time, and wailed in harmony with the wind. Then she took his pack from him and set up camp for the night.

By the time she awoke he was once again buried. Not able to look at the spot where her brother lay she walked over to the walls of ice and began her own climb.

The spikes her brother had hammered in still held strong and she scaled the walls with ease. She came to the spot where the ice had splintered and stopped a moment. Then she took the next spike from her bag and drove it in.

Eventually she made it to the top and the wind died around her. Before her was a frozen sea, waves and solid ridges of ice curling over themselves. There was a light in the distance, green, purple and blue, like the northern light caught in a spike upon the ice. She felt hatred and anger and the magic dagger that she’d taken from her dead brother heating her within and she started marching determinedly forward.

The uneven ice caught at her feet and she tripped and stumbled but her anger pushed her onward. The spire grew larger, sprouted wings and extensions until at last the castle of ice stood before her. Its bones were stone, shining white marble that shone out from places where the ice hadn’t yet grown over it. The doors were of purple ice, strong and imposing, with big flat steps leading up to them.

Her hand reached within her furs and gripped the summer dagger that nestled within. Then she started climbing the steps. The large doors barred her way but they opened easily at her touch, swinging wide and showing the grand entrance of the palace. A wide sweeping staircase stood before her, the bannisters ice and the treads stone. With blade in hand she stalked up them. The wind that tore around her had a cry now, a human sound and she followed the wailing.

And there in the throne room she found her. Not on the throne itself, a smirk as cold as the wind cutting across her face, but in the shadow of it, curled up in a small ball. A child, a girl, long white hair and big blue eyes the clear shade of ice from which tears slide down porcelain cheeks. She looked up at Uki, gave a sob echoed by the wind outside and threw herself at her, burying herself in her killer’s arms. Uki found herself holding the small warm body tight, the hair pressed against her cheek. She looked over the child’s shoulder, at the knife she still clutched tight in her fist and felt her heart freeze, the anger draining out of it. She knew she couldn’t do it.

The crying slowly faded and with it the cold. The girl looked up at Uki and smiled and with that smile a wave of heat ran through the castle.

“Who are you?” Uki asked the small girl in her arms, murmuring it into her hair. “Where did you come from?”

“I don’t know,” the girl replied. “I’ve always been here. I just know that I am alone.” She looked up at the older girl. “Please don’t go,” she said, tears beading in her eyes, as the temperature dropped again. “Don’t leave me all alone again.”

“I won’t,” Uki promised her, holding her tight.

They stayed like that for a while, a small pile of furs and companionship. Then it was interrupted by a growling in Uki’s stomach. The child’s eyes flew open.

“You’re hungry?

Before Uki could answer the girl can concentrated and a bowl of ice appeared on the floor beside them. “Eat this,” the girl said, disentangling from Uki and picking it up. She looked down and saw that the bowl was filled with snow.

“I can’t eat this,” she tried to tell the child but faltered at the look on the smaller girl’s face. Giving up she scooped a small amount of the snow into her mouth but was surprised to find it warm and nourishing. The girl laughed to see the expression on her face, jumped up and pulled the older girl to her feet.

“Let’s go play,” she said.

They explored the castle and the girl showed Uki all of it, from the top of the huge tower where a balcony looked back on the glaciers and snow plains, to a large bedroom with a feather stuffed bed. There the day ended, with the two of them lying together under white covers, Uki’s arms wrapped tight around the ice queen.

“Can you stop it?” she whispered in the small child’s ear. “Can you stop the winter?”

“Maybe,” the girl replied. Then she fell asleep.

Maybe, Uki told herself as she held the child tight. Maybe tomorrow she’ll get it under control.

Every day they would explore the castle together, playing little games, growing closer together. Every day Uki would ask the girl to try and control her powers to stop the winter and every day the girl would try but fail.

Every night Uki would stand at the top of the tower, looking through the steady snowfall back to where her village sat backed by the mountains. Every night she would watch for the light from their doors and windows, for the smoke that came from their fires.

Until a night came when, no matter how hard she looked, there were no lights to see, and no smoke rising into the air. And then she knew that her village had been buried.

“You have to try,” she told the girl the next day.

“Try what?” The girl asked as she played on the stairs with small dolls made of snow.

“You’ve got to stop the winter. It’s too cold.”

“I don’t find it cold,” said the girl. “It’s just right for me.”

“But it’s not for other people.”

She looked up, suddenly concerned. “Is it too cold for you?”

“No,” said Uki for the inside of the ice castle was always warm to her these days. “But there are others out there who aren’t me.”

“I’ve never met them. Why should I care?”

Uki took a deep breath, trying to stay calm. “Just try it, will you?”

“Ok, I’ll try. For you.”

The girl took a deep breath, closed her eyes and focused. The wind dropped to nothing and a sudden silence fell. For a moment Uki thought she could see the faint glow of a dawn though the windows.

Then the ice child’s eyes flew open and she burst out laughing, the wind echoing it with a flurry of snow.

Uki felt the sparks of anger stir within her again. Again she saw her brother, lying dead in the snow. Suddenly she was on her feet, yelling.

“People are getting hurt. People are dying! Do you want people to die? Because it’s your fault!”

The wind whipped fiercely against the ice panes. There was a rumble, a groaning, a shifting as the ice itself rose and bucked. The ice child rose into air that was suddenly glittering with frost. Uki felt her eye lashes freeze and she ran from the room, slipping on the ground. Behind her the queen hung suspended, cradled by her terrible power.

And then she collapsed, crying, onto the ground. Uki looked round the door, carefully approached and gathered the girl up into her arms.

“I can’t,” the ice child sobbed. “I keep trying but I don’t know how. I don’t want to hurt people but I can’t.”

“It’s ok,” Uki told her, pulling her tight against her. “Don’t cry. I’ll take care of it.”

That night she put her in the bed, with covers as white as snow. She told her of her brother, how she’d showed him the paths on their mountains that led to the lakes, how she’d taught him how to fish. She eased in beside her, held her close and sang the songs of her buried people until the ice child’s breath came deep and even. She cradled her, kissed her pale hair.

She slid in the knife.

And spring came again.