The Passing of Bronze
There are few things that can ruin a peaceful night quite as
well as a room full of fairies.
The air was filled with coruscating glows that hurt the eyes to look at directly. Human shaped in form, with dragonfly wings and wild hair. The smallest of them could have easily ridden a frog, if she didn’t get eaten up in the process. The largest was proudly over a foot, and was pretending not to enjoy the awe and jealousy he inspired in the wee ones. The noise they raised could drive the sanest man mad. With chattering laughter, buzzing wings, and voices so high pitched they could give bats a headache.
Their father was not amused.
“All right, settle down. It’s time for bed you unruly skitter bugs,” he said as he limped into the center of the room.
At just over two feet he towered over his offspring. Old scars may have crippled his wing and left his left leg gimpy, but his children still hushed. Even the oldest, who would be ready to go start a family of his own soon enough, showed proper respect and helped lead his youngest siblings to their beds.
The father couldn’t have felt prouder of his little monsters.
“Tell us a story?” came the predictable request.
“Hmm… I don’t know,” the father hedged as he always did. It never paid to give in too easily.
Besides, it always softened his heart to see the mock sad faces and shining puppy dog eyes as his children pleaded for an evening tale. He looked around at faces peering out at him from a mishmash of scavenged beds. The triplets in their spice rack bunk bed. His favorite daughter in her velvet lined jewelry box. His oldest so big now his feet dangled out of the old picnic basket. He knew that nothing in this world or any other could make him disappoint his brood.
“Pleeeaaase,” came the ritual response.
“Hmm…wellll, I suppose.”
Cheers went up, only to be quickly silenced by their fathers half joking glare. Two children darted from their beds to drag up a low stool. He ruffled their hair as he sat, trying not to sigh with relief as he got his weight off his leg. Then he lightly swatted their behinds to send them careening like sputtering roman candles back into their beds.
“Well, what type of story shall it be tonight?” the father asked.
“Sumthin wit kittens!”
Several voices booed down that idea and the little one who uttered it disappeared under his blankets for protection. While the father shushed the naysayers, three boys took advantage of the distraction to put in their bid as one.
“Something gruesome!” they shouted together.
“Yah! Goosum!” peeped the same child who had been asking for kittens a moment ago. He had yet to emerge from the blankets.
That seemed to be a popular idea with the majority, though the father was trying to dispel the few tales of gruesome kittens that popped into his mind. As he was thinking of an alternative his oldest son decided this might be an opportunity to hear a topic that was rarely discussed.
“Maybe one of your own war stories father?”
The father almost managed to keep his son from seeing the involuntary wince that crossed his face, and both felt conflicting emotions. Unfortunately, the younger ones caught up the idea at once. Some yelled for war stories, some for daddy stories, but all yelled loudly and with much enthusiasm.
“Hmm… no not tonight, no war stories,” the father said, dodging the deeper issue. He looked around at disappointed faces and smiled. “Don’t you sprats know by now there are more powerful conflicts than war? Take it from an old soldier. A thousand men can die on a battlefield and not have as profound an effect on Fate’s tapestry as a hundred words exchanged at the right time by the right people with the right kind of power.”
There were murmurs among the children. They tried their best to stay still in their beds, but their wings betrayed them, buzzing with excitement. Some of the youngest, sharing an old steamer trunk as a mutual bed, muttered quietly together. They were trying to figure out some of daddy’s bigger words, but no fey kid would dare interrupt a story out of ignorance. Nor would a fey dad stop to explain, or dumb down the tale. He was confident in his kids. They would figure things out on their own.
“Do you think there would have been war between the angels if their lord and rebel hadn’t exchanged the wrong words first? Do you think the trees would have stopped talking to humanity if Oak, Ash, and Thorn hadn’t discussed it amongst themselves? What words do you think were exchanged before our people, the fey, left our planet of birth behind to form a new home of our own here in Faerie?”
He paused, for effect and to watch which faces showed comprehension and which were enthralled but confused. He noted the later. They hadn’t been paying attention in their history lessons. It was a dad’s job to be devious.
“Let me tell you a tale of such a talk,” he said. “Let me tell you about the Council of Metal.”
This was long before Faerie, long before the fey were organized under a King. In fact this isn’t one of our stories at all, but the events I shall describe affected each and every one of us. In ways you are yet too young to fully understand.
There are some species that view metal as one of the basic elements of the cosmos, and it does seem that metal is everywhere and in everything. There is metal in you little ones, in your blood and in your flesh. There is more metal in me, shrapnel from the Wars still buried in this old leg of mine.
The Lords and Ladies of Metal are like the Lords of the Trees. Each one represents one metal of importance to the world. Just as the Grim Reaper is death, and Oak is both the oak trees and the source of knowledge they represent, the Lord Gold is gold, bold and brilliant and shining. Though he is not very practical and has a tendency to throw his weight around. While the Lady Silver is gleaming and mysterious, sought after and secretive, full of magic that she uses most rarely.
Do you understand my little ones? Good.
Now imagine every metal that could possibly matter and give it a human shape, a representative and yes a guardian. Imagine hard, serviceable Brass, his gleam subdued next to Gold even though his strength can get far much more done in practical hands. How about Mercury? Quick, slippery, untrustworthy. A small man with gleaming eyes and liquid tongue, whose words have made even strong willed men go truly insane. Old Tin, who’s cheap and worn looking even in his youth, but generous to a fault, and always wanting to feel useful.
That is the Council of Metals, a gathering of all the Lords and Ladies of the clink. They wear skin like you and I, and their eyes can be more varied and more powerful than even the strongest of the fey. They meet only rarely, in a cave of soft stone where none of them have prominence of power. By its very nature metal does not change easily, and the Council only needs meet when the balance of power shifts throughout the world. When a new alloy takes prominence or an old metal runs out. They meet in all the worlds, though no one knows if it is the same Council, or if each world has its own.
On the occasion I have in mind, most of the council had already gathered. There were thrones for the twelve most prominent, each one carved out of a solid piece of their metal. Gold’s throne was the largest, for gold’s allure and power in the world has been devastating and immortal. The smallest of the current twelve was held by Copper. Despite his longevity, no one quite knew what to make of Copper. He spoke not at all and changed his appearance often as the world found new uses for him. It is said these days he has hair like a nest of wires that seem to spark with static.
Bronze, the only alloy to gain a position among the twelve thrones, owed his seat to the support of Copper and Old Tin. Brass hoped to gain a seat likewise, but his parent Zinc refused to risk his seat to support the bid. For now Brass was forced to stand in the shadows with the other less important metals and rarer alloys.
One seat was standing empty. It was the dark grey throne of Iron. Odd, because on this day Iron’s fate was to be discussed, and yet he had not arrived yet. Being fashionably late was far more Silver’s style.
Everyone had been gathered for some time, the eleven prominent Metals sitting in silence on their thrones. Many of the lesser members of the Council milled around the circle, talking amongst themselves. They eagerly discussed what was to come, each one sure of their theories, and certain that by being right they would one day gain some measure of power for themselves. You will find such self important talk in any gathering of politicians my children, which is why I chose the life of an honest soldier. Always remember, those that talk the loudest usually know the least.
Iron arrived, appearing in the middle of the circle with a crash like thunder. He was a short man, but his shoulders were nearly as broad as he was tall. Stocky, sturdy, and humorless. Yet he smiled today. A cruel, cold smile that made many of the Council nervous.
He was not alone.
Two stood with him. At his left stood a dwarf of a figure that could barely be called a man. Pig Iron was a lackey, contaminated and weak, with small horns like an imp’s. He had no place in the Council proper, and for Iron to bring his servant to such a gathering was an insult.
At Iron’s right stood a tall, gleaming figure. He was the only one who seemed sculpted of metal itself. His body was that of a working mans, or perhaps the ideal of a working man. His bare chest was muscled, his arms thick, and his jaw chiseled. A statue of bright grey strength who looked over the room with haughty confidence that bordered on arrogance. He was Iron’s child, Steel.
Gold spoke first, officiating the meeting. His voice drew the ear like his coin tended to draw the eye.
“We are gathered today to discuss Iron’s ward,” he said, his voice strong and alluring even though his tone was bored.
“Do the voices!” one of the children dared interrupt their father.
A few shouted agreement, but most of the others glared at their sibling. This was not daddy’s usual tale. So far no trolls had been squashed or princesses put in peril. This was even stranger than the one he had told of the chicken with two heads who claimed to have laid the first egg. They were enthralled, and he was pleased. This evening his children would learn. They would think.
“This time I can’t do the voices little one,” he said gently. “I could not do them justice. I might insult them. You wouldn’t want Gold’s brash temper to find me on a sunbeam would you? Or for Mercury’s ire to slip into my dreams?”
The child shook his head, eyes wide. The others exchanged sidelong glances, implications settling into their young minds.
“Iron won’t come to get us, will he daddy?” one of them asked.
Their father considered the question for a moment before answering.
“Faerie protects us against iron, bars it from our realm. There is no iron at all in its crust, only a rare piece here or there that some powerful stranger brings in. So no, Iron can not come and get you. Not here safe at home, but always beware the metal children. It looks simple and dull, but burns with hate, and is no friend of the fey.”
He looked over his children, till he was certain that each would have proper respect should they ever come across someone wielding the wicked metal. His eyes locked on his oldest son’s, and they shared a private moment. Only his eldest knew that it had been a blow with an iron bar that had taken his wing.
“Now, where was I?”
“A throne stands empty,” Gold continued. “Iron, it is your right to yield your throne to your offspring. Do you choose to do so?”
Many of the eleven sitting shared Gold’s bored expression. This was important enough to draw the Council together, but it was still routine. Steel was superior to Iron in every way, and technology would soon be evolved enough for steel to be produced in quantity. It was natural succession of a hereditary line.
They were shocked by Iron’s reply.
“No, I do not.”
There were loud mutters among the peons behind the thrones, silenced when Mercury turned from his seat and hissed with anger. A couple of lesser members fell to their knees as the sound slipped and slid into their skulls. He turned satisfied and regarded Steel, liquid shifting gaze locking on one hard as stone. There was something about Steel’s gleam that Mercury knew not to trust.
“Do you challenge your father little large one?” Mercury asked. “Will you rest his seat through combat? We would understand if you did not feel ready.”
“No,” Steel said in a voice oddly without inflection. “I challenge Bronze.”
There was only silence now. The move was an audacious one, a shock and surprise not one of the lesser metals had voiced in their predictions.
An old woman sitting on a white throne turned her gaze to young Steel. Her skin was white and flaky, her eyes covered in cataracts. Sodium was in some ways the weakest metal, but essential to all things. She remembered when there had only been four thrones at the council.
“That is not our way,” she said, “parent to child.”
“You are not natural,” Gold said to Steel, his arrogance far stronger than this newcomer’s. “You should not be allowed at all.”
“You set the way Gold,” Iron said. “You liked Bronze’s shine, and supported and funded his rise to prominence in the Council and in the world. You let Tin and Copper risk their chairs and let an alloy challenge for a throne of his own. I was against it. Now I will use your precedent for my ends.”
Silver, her voice like a bell and her tongue as sharp as a daggers spoke up.
“Tin and Copper do not often act in accord, and Bronze proved to have a personality and voice of his own. You bring a puppet, a slave so that you can have two votes in any issue.”
“You are wrong,” Steel said. “I will not vote with him, he will vote with me.”
“Oh?” Silver asked. “You seem so sure for one so young. What would you do with two votes in the Council.”
“I shall remake the world. I will make it strong, unbreakable. I will be the building block of cities that reach the sky, paths that span the Earth. I will make this a world of Metal.”
Stunned silence filled the room again. Other’s had spoken like that. Many wanted power, respect. Personal desires tainted any group that decided the Fate of a world, and only a few senior members thought the Council’s purpose was to promote balance. Here was a bold new child, potentially a beacon of what metal could be. The Council looked at Steel with new eyes, regarding this meeting now not as a challenge of Iron’s, but perhaps the ascension of a new champion.
One spoke up from the shadows, someone no one had noticed till now, a stranger to the Council.
“This is a mistake.”
His voice was strangely captivating, and seemed to hold a rippling mix of emotions. Humor, anger, disdain, and his own strength and confidence at very least equal to that of Steel’s. To be honest my children, he sounded like a bit of a snob, sneering at the Council even though he had no throne of his own.
“Who are you?” Silver all but purred, something in his voice had captivated her at once.
“A visitor from far away, with my own connections to metal. I heard you all were meeting, and thought I’d come see a bit of a show.”
“So you have no voice here,” Gold said. “No power.”
“Only that of my own body,” the stranger agreed happily.
“And no name,” said Iron. He was unhappy with this interruption. His plans had been going so well.
“You can call me sir,” said the stranger. “If the rest of you need a name, you can call me Damascus.”
There was a ripple among the crowd, and I’ll tell you why my children. Damascus is a special type of steel. Some say it is the best, others claim it is the oldest. It is made by folding steel of different types together again and again, hammering different parts into one whole. It makes the finest swords, strong and sharp, and also the prettiest. For treated right, the steel would show patterns that rippled like a river, and glinted like the humor in the stranger’s eyes.
“Then if that is the name you claim, you owe your fealty to me,” Steel said, “and father Iron.”
“Son, I don’t owe you anything but a smack on the head. I said I wasn’t from around here, and I don’t give a piss what you all decide happens to this rock of a planet. I owe fealty to no one.”
“Yet you seek to advise us?” Gold demanded, nose in the air and anger rising high.
“Sure, only an idiot ignores the advice of someone who truly neutral, with no stake in events. You aren’t an idiot are you Gold?’
There were a few titters in the crowd as Gold was neatly boxed in, almost any reply making him seem an idiot indeed. Bronze finally got over his shock at being challenged to speak up.
“Why is it a mistake?” he asked, trying not to sound as hopeful as he felt at the sudden chance for salvation.
The stranger smiled.
“‘Cause a metal world is a boring world, and you all will loose out if that world comes from Steel. Steel can only beget steely children. Gold, you’re attraction is your shine, and Steel has enough of that to suit himself. You will loose your worth, become little more than a symbol and then not even that. Silver, what use does practical Steel have for mystery and magic? You will loose your enchantment, and become merely the source of trinkets. Even you Natrium, pardon I mean Sodium, could be at risk. The true products of steel need not even salt.”
“You talk to much,” Steel said, voice betraying not even irritation.
“Words are useful bright boy, something else I wouldn’t expect simple Steel to understand.”
“You can not stop me,” Steel said flatly.
“Nope, not my place too, at least, not in this role at this time. Still, I can give the clunk heads my advice, and hope that they vote down your little challenge. That’s the next step, a vote right? After all, the challenge itself is almost moot. Bronze can not stand up to you in combat.”
“Thanks,” Bronze said, hopes failing.
“But the stranger is right,” Silver said, “we must vote.”
And they did, and only four people headed the stranger’s warning. Gold could not believe he would ever loose his value. Silver was insulted by the idea that she was the source of trinkets. Bronze, Copper, Zinc, and Tin voted against the challenge.
Bronze stepped down from the throne, not even bothering to meet Steel in combat or other challenge. He knew he was outmatched. The throne turned bright gray almost at once, and Steel took his new seat.
You see how simple it was my children? There was no fight, no war. Either would have been pointless. The matter was decided by words.
It would take some time for the affects to ripple through the world. Yet with two votes on the council, the age of Bronze would soon be over. Iron would take precedence, with Steel after that. As Iron spread, we left that world. The fey retreated from an enemy we had no resistance to, wielded in the hands of humans who knew nothing of Councils or Power. They already had Steel minds and Iron hearts, long before this meeting was held.
Of course, words do sometimes lead to blood.
“Well, I’m gone,” Damascus said, never losing his humor even though no one had listened. He truly did not seem to care about the Fate of Earth. “Silver, look me up sometime, we’ll do drinks. As for the rest of ya, it’s up to you. If Steel isn’t everything you imagine, you all will have to come up with a new alloy that has what he lacks. Other than that, I might swing back in when you guys vote on the place of Uranium in this world. See you in a few millennia.”
And he stepped into the shadows and was gone.
Silver watched him fade out with her head cocked like an owl regarding a rustle in the bushes. Though I doubt if she knew if that rustle was a tasty mouse, or a dangerous wolf. She spoke up to the council.
“I think that concludes our business today. There are other, smaller matters. But they can wait for our next gathering.”
Without waiting for accord she stood, vacating her throne. She started to leave the cave and conversations started up again, as those present discussed today’s odd events. None were watching when she drew a dagger of pure silver. None turned till Pig Iron fell to the floor, his throat cut. None had time to stop her from slipping her bloodied dagger between Iron’s ribs.
“I can’t kill you,” she purred into Iron’s ear, “the next Lord of Iron might be even more obnoxious. Yet from this day forward, your enemies are my friends. Silver will always have sway.”
She left the dagger in him, and daintily walked out of the cave. Leaving him slumped in his throne and bleeding over its dark surface. That day, the fey gained silver as a friend, and she shares her boons with us still.
The father stood and stretched. Many of the youngest were well asleep, lulled by their father’s voice. They may not have understood all of the story or even most, but they liked the parts they did understand. When dealing with so many children, one had to weave complexly.
“Are they real papa,” his favorite daughter asked. “The Lords and Ladies of Metal, the stranger who called himself Damascus?’
“Yes daughter… I have it on very good authority.”
“Then what he said is possible?” his eldest son asked, seeming lost in thought.
“What’s that?” the father responded, not sure what his son meant.
“What Damascus said, about an alloy stronger than Steel that might undo his affects on the world?”
“I don’t know son, do you think you could find metal mixes more powerful than the family of Iron?”
“I think I might like to try… Would that be all right father? Would you be upset if I became a smith, not a soldier?”
The father could practically feel his leg throb in response, muscle aching around ancient pieces of shrapnel. Yet his heart ached more. He nodded softly.
“That would be fine son. But you’d need to study metallurgy as well. I will inquire about apprenticeships with the gnomes and alchemists if you like. We can talk about it in the morning.”
“All right poppa,” his son murmured as he lay down.
The old soldier tucked his drifting children in one by one, thoughts heavy. Their own glow and a few willow-wisps filled the room with gentle, soothing light. He glanced at the shadows on the wall, and saw old stories and memories in their shifting depths.
Once the children were asleep, he felt like he deserved a reward. He picked up his favorite pipe and bag of tobacco, heading out the front door for a bit of a smoke. The evening was gentle and the wind warm, and his head was filled with strange thoughts.
He nearly tripped over the small package on his doorway.
He bent and unwraped the bundle carefully. Inside was a scaled down anvil and hammer, both made out of sturdy bronze, and just the right size for a foot tall fairy child.
He looked up to see a figure leaning against an ash tree several feet away.
“Been a long time. Good story?” the old soldier and father asked.
The figure nodded.
“Good tales do get rewarded,” Damascus said, and then just like in the story he vanished into the shadows.
“Trouble maker,” the father chuckled, and sat down next to the anvil. He lit his pipe and smoked in peace, trying to decide how he was going to explain to the brood how only one of them had gotten a present.
He wondered what type of bedtime story the little terrors would ask for tomorrow night.