Souls and Dancing Lights
TO UNDERSTAND HOW I came to be in such a terrible place, I have to explain the places that came before; or more accurately, place. I, like many folk, grew up in the shadow of my parent’s respective calling. Our home was the only smithery in the village, and my parents were its only smiths. My father did most of the forging and metalworking, and my mother did most of the finishing – an arrangement that suited their hands, and gave me a good understanding of the whole craft. I lived and quite literally breathed their work, with what space in our house that was dedicated to the normal functions of home constantly stinking of charcoal, salt and bone. I’m sure that many a listener would chastise me for thinking I had it hard; true enough there was always food on the table, there was always coin for clothes and trinkets, and there was a roof over my head for first seventeen years of my life. Perhaps a grander story would have had me living hand to mouth in the awnings of manors in the Pelenine Hills, stealing loaves of bread and slices of pie from open windows, stealing the hearts of courtiers and making my way up the social ladder.
But that would not be my story. I was a blacksmith’s boy, born as Raemir, son of Riva and Craemon, on course to be a smith until the day I could no longer swing a hammer, whereupon I would pass it onto my children, and the children after them. As I am now, it feels like oblivion, for lack of a better word, to inherit a calling and life from your parents, and to simply bear that life until you pass it onto the next. At the time however, it simply felt like that was the way things were. You cannot understand that you are trapped in a prison if those walls and bars are all that you know of the world, and all I knew of the world was the village of Sael.
The name of the village was hotly disputed in many a tavern-held ‘discussion’. The prevailing theory was that it got its name from a friendly giant man called Saelmann, who would lift fallen trees off the road for passing caravans. The second most popular, was that it came from an explorer called Masarael the Rambler, who discovered the region and mapped it all out. The size of Saelman, the fairness of Masarael, both vary between retellings and quantity of drink. In some, more sober discussions, Masarael was given a tidy sum by a local small-king to find a source of wood grand enough for a carving. However, when the ale was flowing, she would became the most beautiful soul in the forest, who sung to the trees to grow them tall and hard with nothing but her clarion voice. The main detail that varied with Saelmann, was just his size. I recall a time in the Shaded Grove, the closest tavern to our home, and one that my father attended regularly.
“Listen Craemon, ‘e had to be that tall, because otherwise he couldn’t have thrown the cart!” My father and I were sat at a small table with a man who I had not spoken to before, but one he seemed familiar with. His voice was thin and rasping, as though his throat was a quarter of the size it actually was, and he had a tongue thick with drink. “Thrown the cart..?” In contrast, my father’s voice was deep and leathery; I came to the notion that one’s voice thins out with use, and he used his sparingly. “Aye, thrown. So the story goes.” The rasping man took in a deep breath, signalling the start of the performance. “Some slick, bucklebooted coinspinner tried to buy ole Saelmann’s arm. He came to him on the darkest day in Winter, with a whole chest of jewels and trinkets. Wanted Saelmann to smash any other trader following the road, such that only the his goods would pass”. He took a long gulp of his flagon, and slammed it back down on the table to add dramatic flair to his story. “But ole Saelmann was cunning and sound, he knew right from wrong! He took the coinspinner’s offer, but gave more in return. ‘For our new friendship, I can provide you a way to get to the nearest village faster than a sprinting buck, would you like to have it?’ asked ole Saelmann.”
It was obvious to me what was coming, but the rest of the tavern-dwellers had quieted in anticipation, like it was a well known song, coming to a head. The rasping man narrowed his eyes and straightened his back. “‘Cos ole Saelmann was a keen judge, he knew the spinner’s character was thin as the coin he craved; a faster pace meant more time to peddle, an offer he could not resist. The snake asked ole Saelmann to show him the way immediately. He came down with his arm, big as two score logs bound together, and scooped up the peddler with his cart. As though he were throwin’ a pebble, ole Saelmann hefted it all into the sky, and watched as it arced down a full four thousand paces yonder, just as he said, in the nearest village”. A small cheer erupted from the tavern, accompanied by the stamping of feet. The rasping man sat back in his chair, and folded his arms in satisfaction. “Course, ole Saelmann went over to that village, chest between his fingers, and shared the riches with them for the trouble of crashin’ a cart into their square. From there, word spread to them coinspinners – not all things in this world can be bought, and fate might kill them for tryin'”. He bookended the story with another large gulp of his flagon, to a background of laughing and jeering.
“So then where’s Saelmann now?” I blurted, shattering the post-story euphoria. The flagon came down to the table, more softly than before. I fully expected him to yell “Do you think you are smart? Do you think you have found a hole in my story, you stupid boy!“. But his features softened, and he chuckled a woeful, crackling laugh. “That’s a story for another time, little one, I fear your ‘pa doesn’t ‘ave the stomach for more”. While the story’s veracity was in question, that observation was not. My father was not an expressive man, but in this moment, he was looking at me in the corner of his eye much in the same way that one regarded a clawfly – disgust. The night wrapped up there; we said our goodbyes and made our back way home. It was six minutes into the walk, after we had cleared the main street of the village, when my dad dragged me off the path and beat me. It was not the first time, nor even the last, but one I will never forget.
I will need to explain something of magic. The first time I saw it, not the crowdshow sleight of hand that I witnessed countless times at market, but Sträm’s honest truth magic, was when I was ten years of age. It was not described as such at the time, for even the most crazed or brazen of folk would not do so publicly, but in retrospect it could not have been anything else. There was a woman who would come to our village once a season, always in the first three days of the first month. A group of us would wait by the main road at near to dusk, each of the three days, until she arrived to our jubilation. She dressed as plainly as one could, with the only identifying item being a silver buckled leather satchel that she had slung over one shoulder. Otherwise, you could mistake her for any of the folk by her clothing. Her hair was a stark auburn colour, which she tied into a ponytail at the back. It swung with the regularity of a pendulum, and many children would use it to keep time for a sort of procession.
We would all walk down to the nearest clearing, performing this strange ceremonial dance, following our beloved lady until she had cause to stop. When she did, she would always turn to us and ask the same question. “Does anyone have anything to share today?” We would immediately respond by pressing forwards, holding aloft various trinkets and pieces, waiting for her to select one. When she did, she would ask us to explain how we had come by it, sparing absolutely no detail or effort. One time, I was lucky enough to be chosen. It was a small figurine, no more than a finger in height, smithed of metal fragments I found from around our forge. It was undeniably amateur – the combination of materials and lack of time had led to an uneven melt, which had in turn, warped the figurine as it cooled. Nonetheless, she asked me to recount the process by which I made it.
I described how I crawled the floor for hours, looking for flakes of metal that were left behind, how I put them into a crucible and heated them until they formed what looked like a liquid. How I then took that heavy crucible and decanted it into a stone mold of the figure that I had chiseled out before, and so on. I declined to mention the burn I received on a finger through a hole in the gloves, but I cradled it unconsciously. “It’s meant to be Aldin” I mumbled, and gestured in his direction. She turned the figurine end over end, before looking at me with earnest brown eyes and asking: “It’s wonderful Raemir, are you sure you want me to have it?” I nodded at her, and stood a pace back for what came next. She cupped the figurine in her hands, brought it close, and then held them open in front of her. In place of the figurine, now stood a thrushling, made of pure orange light. It hopped from finger to finger, before taking to the air over our heads, circling and tumbling, until it ended as a dull ember that fell into the grass. The whole moment lasted a mote longer than the time between two breaths.
We erupted into cries of appreciation. Even I, who had toiled for hours on something that had been destroyed so immediately, found myself cheering like a dullard watching cups and balls. Perhaps the spectacle itself was not what drew such joy, but just that it could happen at all. That even in sod’s end Sael, whose most renowned quality was a risible origin tale, we would be bestowed with such a display of Passion. At the very least, it was enough to make you forget about the days work ahead. Enough to make you forget the welts and bruises. It continued until I was fourteen, a year where we waited, clutching at our homemade toys and trinkets for three dusks and one more, waiting for our lady. She never came, and that was the end of that.
I fully believe that, had fate not deemed otherwise, I could have told my life story with fourteen words on a gravestone. “Here lies Raemir, born in Sael, died in Sael, with some smithing work between”. There were however, two things that conspired to adjust the course of my life in altogether more interesting and terrible ways. Firstly, I was blessed with a trio of friends; we were of similar age and standing, each born with a unique disposition that meshed to form bonds strong as any iron. I knew them from when I learned to walk, and our friendship only grew from there. First was Aldin, whose gentleness of manner was contrasted by his sharp features and strength of arm. He worked with his father in the lumbermill – the wood of the forest around us was too tough to be cut by folk lacking brawn, and so it induced it. He stood a full two heads taller than the rest of us, and was lean with corded muscle. He was our knight. On several occasions where I should have had my teeth kicked in for my trouble, Aldin was there. This having been said, he would keep his hair razor-cut short, so we said that the mill used his head to sand down rough edges, in lieu of any other use for it. He took it in good spirits, as he took everything.
Then there was Illia. She was a farmhand, and would not be whole without straw in her dark hair, or a stone in her hand. She spent most of her days driving carts to market, or cattle to new grazing lands. For Illia, time was the most valuable commodity she had, and her mind was like a knife that cut out anything that wasted it. When selling their produce, if she told you that it was ten slivers for a bag of oats, it was ten slivers for a bag of oats; a lesson that customers learned swiftly. She hoarded her time because she needed it to dream. Numbered too few were the Summer evenings where we would sit on a fence and listen to Illia speak of things that weren’t real. Not the tavern-fodder from earlier, stories that were wrung out like a wet cloth by the time it reached your ear. She spoke of worlds utterly unlike our own.
Last of the three was Renee, who was bonded to me by virtue of our first letter. I told her that the silver tongue she possessed was our smith’s first creation, a joke that she pretended to be insulted by, but privately revelled in. She was the daughter of our village’s physician, who was a woman of such habit and consistency that people would tell the time by the opening of her clinic. I think Renee did everything in her power to be different; she refused to inherit the manner of her mother, even if she did get her intellect. On walks, she would excitedly gesture at plants, enumerating their medicinal uses or poisonous capabilities. When one of us fell ill, or suffered a scrape, she would concoct some poultice or mixture to solve it. When I would run from my home with bruises, it was her gentle care that tended to them.
What of me? What did I bring to this group of people, of matching value to their contributions? They knew me for my hands, trained as they were, and they helped where they could. I fixed Aldin’s saw when its teeth were blunted and bent, I forged new fastenings for Illia’s cart when the previous ones were rusted and loose. I smithed doctor’s tools of silver for Renee, as she said they faired better with people. I did not understand why, but I was simply happy to help her. While I did these things, I never felt used for my hands – it simply felt like something I could do, and I did it for free. This fact would get me into considerable trouble with my father, who punished me whenever he discovered that metal had gone missing from the forge. But the bruises mattered not, for I loved my friends as though we were of the same blood. There were no barriers between our hearts, no walls between our minds. If I could not share a thought with them, then it could not well live within my own head either.
My fondest memory of our time together was when I was fifteen, in the opening of autumn. We had been walking back from the river, surrounded by the oranges and yellows of fading nature, when Renee had become enraptured by something growing on the side of a tree branch about ten paces up. This, despite a fact that she repeated several times while running around the trunk, looking for handholds. “I’m telling you, Folded Redbur shouldn’t be growing anywhere outside of a damp cave, and not this far north either! It’s just not possible!” She stopped underneath it and stared directly upwards. Illia cut in. “So it isn’t. It’s something else and you’ve got it muddled. It doesn’t even look like a mushroom to me”. Renee spun round with wild eyes and blurted “it’s not any regular mushroom! It’s a special one, you can use it for dyeing or facepaint!” She began to pace around the roots again. “Fetches a pretty coin too, ‘cos it doesn’t leave you numbed like Bloodroot does”
“It could fetch a handful of bars, it wouldn’t make it any lower down,” I said, my arms folded. “maybe we can knock it down with something.” I searched around for a rock of suitable size and picked it up. “No!” she yelled, and quickly grabbed my wrist. “Raemir, son of Craemon and Riva, this is not a problem to be smashed flat like a kink in one of your metals.” She plucked the stone from my hand, and tossed it into a bush. “This is a problem to be solved with guile, now hoist me squirelings!” She immediately began to climb onto my shoulders, using Aldin’s head for balance. Despite our squirming and many complaints, she found purchase on the lowest branch and pulled herself up. We stood back as she analysed her next move. Illia pointed to a branch slightly higher up on her right, “you’ll want to jump to that one, there’s a path all the way to it from there”, and thumbed a stone over in her hand. Renee took an exaggerated actor’s bow, stood tall and leapt. She caught the branch at chest height, but immediately lost her grip and fell into a heap below.
Renee had dropped hardly any distance at all, but we sped over to her all the same. She was lying, face up, surrounded by leaves and detritus knocked loose by her acrobatics. The silence was broken by Illia: “I told you that you had to jump to it, not at it”, she said turning her stone. Renee remained still. “Yes, well I do remember a great deal about the jumping part! Sorry to say, but the grabbing part was shockingly under-detailed”. A moment passed and then we all burst into laughter, and we made our way back to the village with smiles on our faces. The next day, Aldin brought a ladder from the lumbermill, and clambered up to the ‘rare mushroom’. It turned out to be a red rag that had been caught by the wind, and we laughed even harder than before. We were utter fools, but fools are in good company.
Aldin and Illia would end on the same charred earth that I met my own, victims of their own strength of body and soul. Renee was fortunate enough to be spared the levy, spared the fire that the rest of us would suffer in, spared by the same knowledge that had eased our pains and miseries for years before. She was the second thing that would change the course of my life forever.
I was sixteen when I was first exposed to the way of the world outside Sael. It was a bitterly cold Middlewinter, with a wind so biting that it would take a finger if you let it. I was sat in the forge, forging a piece of iron that was to become a pulley handle for the village well: the old one had become thin and rusted, and ended up buckling in the cold. Despite these conditions outside, the forgehouse was always unpleasantly hot, and I worked bare chested with sweat and smoke sticking to my skin. There was a knock at the door. Not the rapid, cheerful knock of a friend visiting, but the slow, solemn knock of awful tidings. My father answered the door, and ushered in a man swaddled with furs and thick leathers. He stood a good head above my father, with short cut brown hair and a jaw like a shelf. At his hip was sheathed a large blade with a large engraved crossguard, topped with a decorated silver pommel, upon which his hand rested. I could have made a hundred of these iron handles and not gotten half the coin needed to pay for that sword, which meant that he had to be a small-king’s man.
My mother had warned me of such people. The folk around here might have a knife on their person, for a knife was useful. You could cut meat, whittle wood and defend yourself in a pinch if you were jumped by thieves at night. The common axe, held by the woodcutters, was a tool that our village was basically built upon. Their edges were sharp, yes, but they had to be to get through the hard bark of our trees. Even a spear, the weapon of choice for our village militia when needed, could be used for mundane purposes. On several occasions I can recall a wild boar running amok on the main road, requiring someone to corner and stick it. You would not use a sword to cut a tree, slice meat, or fell a boar. A sword was for killing folk.
After some quick conversation between them, I was ushered out with a glare from my father, and the door to the smithery was shut. I knew better than to eavesdrop; I had earned my fair share from doing so previously, so I went up the stairs to our home and sat there until the talking was done. I do not know what was discussed, and I don’t think my mother did either, but life was very different from that point on. We no longer spared metal or time on mundane work – five days hence we got a wagonload of steel ingots, enough to give everyone in the village a set of tools that would last them decades, but they never even saw a nail of it. Now we made weapons: spearheads, arrowheads, axeheads and swords. Each marked with a fire hardened stamp that had been given to us by the small-kingsman, one that left a four pointed star. I had seen it once or twice before on some of the oldest tools in the village, but I would learn this was the symbol of our country, a place that I had never really known.
For the next three seasons, we made nothing but weapons. The wagonloads of ingots would come in, and we would return them brimming with edged steel. Many times we had to turn away folk who came to us in dire need of replacement tools – once turning away a woodcutter who was willing to pay two strips for a new axe head. That’s twice what they’d normally pay, for which they could have gotten a fine pair of shoes from any city cobbler, or several nights in a warm feather bed. Swiftly the mood of the village turned against my family, culminating one night in the Shaded Grove when my father and I were ambushed. “For Sträm’s sound Craemon, have you lost your wits?” bellowed Morgen, who was Illia’s dad, a man of sun-kissed skin and firm features. I respected him greatly, much for the same reasons that he was currently challenging my father for: he was honestly spoken, same as Illia.
“We’re pulling briar out with gloves now, because my scythe got chipped and snapped two sennachts ago! Fourteen days without it now when it wouldn’t take you more than a day to sort, but you won’t do it for love nor coin!” My father did not even deign to look up from his cup. “Now you won’t even speak to me, let alone fix anything! Me. A man you’ve known for over four score seasons! I tried going up to the crossing and even the smith there didn’t give me the time of day” Morgen was flushed red with anger, but then took a long breath and settled. “Craemon, tell us what’s happening” Morgen begged, eyes now filled with concern. My father put down his cup, and shifted to look him in the eye. I thought he was a cruel man, but he had a heart, and in this instance he was wearing it on his sleeves. “Got a visit from a man who bore the mark of the small-king. Gave us an imperative, said we were to make royal orders and nothing else till the metal stopped coming. Pays me well for it too.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a shining golden coin, a sovereign. If Morgen toiled in his fields with his farmhands, living like a pious man on nothing but bread and water for four seasons, he still wouldn’t have seen one for his trouble.
The room had fallen silent. Someone unfamiliar with folk might have thought that my father was bragging, that he had meant to show off the immense wealth that he had come into, even among people living in increasingly dire circumstances. But from his face, and from the faces around the room, you could tell this was not so. That coin was a ball and chain, a brand that said you belonged to our small-king, and as long as you held it, you were in his shadow, and that of his men. It was serfdom condensed into physical form, delivered at distance. The last cruelty was that none of the folk here had the slivers, strips or bars to break a sovereign – so you couldn’t even buy anything with it. Not here. Not for ten thousand paces around.
Morgen rested a hand on my father’s shoulder, and the room remained quiet until it had emptied. A more worldwise person would have understood the consequences of these things. Royal imperatives compelling local folk to make weapons and tools of war makes for a clear portent now. But I was still a boy, and the village of Sael was all I knew.