The Then | 15yrs ago
It was fair to say that a reputation as a bitch-kicking juvenile didn’t win him the affections of his family. Quite the opposite in fact. He was treated like a rabid dog. The smithy seemed such a small space.
At the age of fifteen, he was still technically the least educated in the household. But despite that, he was definitely the most learned. Conversation with his family was like counting sand. It was just an impossible waste of time, and when he wasn’t reading his book, his thumbs twitched. He hated this place.
“Oi, Joss.” They had taken to calling him that. It was marginally less insulting than Jossie, but it was hardly the rough title he deserved. He refused to respond to any name other than his surname. It was that or nothing, so he ignored the call. He would only respond to ‘Kantal’.
But he did really need a forename, didn’t he? His father had a point.
No! It was a girl’s name. He would not wear it.
He continued to stare at the words on the ageing paper, but he was not truly reading. He had absorbed the book over the years. He could recite every page. It was that same book as it ever was, the work of Queen Delfin, mother of Delfinia. It was her story, by her hand, and it was a rare piece of prose. No, it was more than that. It was the priceless original. Bulge had let him keep it. The fact that the other librarians had not even noticed its absence spoke more than enough. But their loss was his gain. Delfin was his guide, and he worshipped her.
And fortunately, his family didn’t recognise its value either. They would surely sell it if they did. But it was saved by that age-old adage: ‘ignorance is blinding’. There was certainly a truth to that.
So much written about Delfin painted her as a traitorous bitch or a magnanimous monarch, but the reality was so stark, so different. She was confused and she was scared. But she was also curious, and that’s what drove her to greatness. She was not content with the answers she was given, even when her father blocked her. She had to find out for herself. She was always scratching; always searching; always probing. It was her strength and it defined her.
And it was this strength of character that splintered the two-thousand-year-old Empire of Mikaeta. She broke the very lineage of written history just by being curious, and that was impossibly inspiring. He liked to think he had that same quality bubbling inside him too. He could change things, do things, and he was sure of it. Now he just needed to prove it.
No. He would not recognise that name. He would not. He focussed his attention back on the page. The book was called ‘The Dark Side of the Stone’, and he had read it hundreds of times. Yet he never tired of its inspiration. If anything, the shapes of the words on the page were comfort enough. He smiled.
“Bellowing Brother, Kantal, will you listen to me?”
He turned, but made sure to look amused with it. He loved winding his thick old father up. “Ah, father. I didn’t notice you there.”
“I was calling yer bloody name.”
He was exercising his linguistic skills more and more, though he hated the common twang of his accent. Nonetheless, he sounded fresher than the rest of this household combined.
“Apologies, father. All I heard was the whispering shadow of my past.” Perhaps that was too much?
“You are a girl after all.”
Yes, that was definitely too much. “Care to say that to my face?”
His father was huge. He was fifty times the proposition of Beef, who was in reality a sallow and flabby excuse of a juvenile. Yes indeed, his smith of a father was still in remarkable shape for his age. His arms were like fence posts and he had legs to match. He could also swing a right-hook with the best of them. He was not a man to prod lightly.
They had come to blows twice. The first time, when he was thirteen, he had been humbled into submission by the sheer weight of his father. Last time, a year ago, he’d left with a black eye and two broken ribs. But he’d also left with his pride, because his father was sprawled on the floor without his wits. Since then, he had insisted on Kantal.
“You cannot call yourself by your surname. It’s dumb! We are all Kantal.”
“But I am the Kantal.”
“No, Joss, I am the Kantal. I am senior, and I also live the name. You’re a cocky li’l prick.”
Unfortunately, he could hardly argue with that. His father, and his brothers did in fact live the name, and he didn’t. To be Kantal was to be the smith, and he was no smith. He should have used a different name, a forename perhaps, but the moment had taken him, and he was now too far down the road. He needed to persist, just to float his pride. He could not back down now.
And he therefore needed to change the direction of this talk. “What do you want?”
“I want you to learn the meaning of your name. I want you to help me.”
That was surely a double-edged request? His father hated him, and he hated his father. It was really that simple, and it was only because of the smithy roof that they shared any proximity whatsoever. He scowled.
“What do you mean?”
“Come and be a smith you precious little bitch. Come. Now!”
There was the tiniest appeal in that suggestion, but even greater loathing. He was an outcast in the family, so why taunt him with this suggestion? Usually his father laid into what he called the ‘scrawny shard’ of his frame, although it was this scrawny shard that had toppled the huge man just last year. But though that earned some distance, it didn’t earn respect. The bastard. Why was he saying this?
“It’s because the others are out, and I have a real important job. I only need yer help this morning. You can return to yer sulking this afternoon.”
“It is not―”
“I don’t have time for yer bollocks, Joss. Get out here.”
Almost every fibre told him to sod the bastard, but one chord pulled in the other direction. It was the part of him that wanted to learn. What would Delfin do? He may not crave a career in metal, but he was intrigued to see the trade in action. To be a part of it, even. It could hardly do harm to learn. And that’s what his queen would do, wasn’t it? He would learn the meaning of his name, but he would do it for himself. His father was just an unfortunate accessory.
He’d expected to walk right into the forge room, where the real work takes place, but instead he was led into a storeroom out back. He laughed to himself and earned a scowl from his father. The man dwarfed him in so many ways.
They stopped next to a mess of bitter and scorched iron compound, twisted and deformed where the heat had contorted the material. It was huge, double the size of his father, and it was entirely underwhelming, whatever it was. He looked over the mess and his shoulders sagged.
“What is it?”
His father was gazing at the thing as if it were offspring. It was a look he’d never experienced. It seemed utterly absurd to idolise such scrap. He almost spat on it and left the room. But something kept him rooted.
“It is a Mahani steel bloom. This is the raw material for the finest swordsmithery the world has ever known. This is Mandari steel, my son.”
You couldn’t beat a mandahoi, and this was one of the reasons.
His father smiled, a broad thing that stung his pride. He looked over the metallic mess – all black stains and flashes of light – and noticed his jaw had dropped. He shut it quickly, not wanting to betray his amazement. He couldn’t see how it would become fine steel, but he had to trust his father in this. And he hated him for it. His father couldn’t know what lay in his heart, but this was profound. That scrawled phrase still haunted him. He hadn’t known where to start with his new purpose, but this seemed as good a place as any. Three years of waiting, and it seemed the day had come.
“How did you get it?”
“I didn’t. The customer did. This bloom is more valuable than everything I own.”
Damn. “Who is the client?”
“It is the King himself who has ordered this work.”
His breath caught. He could still see the King and his son standing at the Royal Gallery in the library. Since when was his father taking commissions from the King? He didn’t ask the question.
He looked more intently at the twisted mess, and furrowed his brow. How would it become a thing of beauty? But he kept that to himself too. Something else was burning, a question brighter than the chaos of inquisitiveness in his head. This was what he wanted to know.
“How many swords are you expecting to make? This is a lot of steel.”
When his father spoke, it took his breath away.
“One. Just a single blade. I am nervous, Joss.”
For once he didn’t correct the use of his name. He barely registered it, in fact. One blade? He didn’t know a lot about smithing, but this was a lot of metal. His father did look nervous, and that was telling. If his father was uneasy, then he should be terrified. But his inquisitive streak was burning bright too. He wanted to learn. He would succumb absolutely to his father’s word. Only a fool turns down a lesson, and this was a fine opportunity at that.
“What do we do first?”
His father smiled, but it was also part grimace. “We break this bastard up. Only a third of this bloom is fit for use, and we need to ease that third out. And we need to split that third into three piles: char-rich; char-poor; and char-neutral. It’ll take all morning, but only then can we begin.”
His father lied. It took them all day.
He was working with his top off, skinny body on show, and when his brother returned home, the bastard laughed and sauntered straight through to the forge room. Brother two was barely more sympathetic, but he didn’t care. He may have actually been enjoying himself. He and his father would take it in turns to angle the crowbar into the metallic mess, targeting clear points of differential. The other would then use a heavy mallet to force the bar in, and the material apart. By the time the sun was sinking, they had three very distinct piles of impossibly valuable material. That and a rather larger one of waste. It was satisfying. He could get used to that sensation.
And he ached all over too, having exercised muscles that he’d only sporadically used in the past. At least, he’d rarely used them. His father seemed unaffected by the day’s exertion. When his father finally dragged his eyes from the piles of metal, Mother was deep and the shadow of dusk hid his father’s facial features. Somehow though, his mood shone through the darkness. He was smiling.
“Did you enjoy the work?”
He nodded hungrily, revelling in the delicate thread that had been woven between them. Until this moment, he had been the bastard who’d refused his role as a daughter. And a rebellious little vandal at that. Here and now, for just the briefest moment, he was a son. He almost wanted to cry, but that was not for now. That would be for later. In private. He still had a reputation to uphold.
His father came over and slapped him on the shoulder. The smile now only sharpened one side of his face, but somehow that was even greater. That was a smile reserved for the finest deeds of offspring. And it was pointed his way. He shivered.
“Perhaps we will work this blade together. Would you like that?”
Yes he bloody well would. In that moment, it was all he could think about.
And he did grow to love the work. It suited his curious side and it fanned the child in him. He had spent all of his youth playing the adult; hiding from the bullies and hiding from his family. Here though, he was his father’s son. Here he was a young smith hoping to inherit a great trade. Here he found happiness. Genuine happiness.
And he found purpose too. He rarely even read Delfin’s book. He hoped it could last. By the Father of Paths, he hoped it would last.
His brothers refused to work Mahani steel. They considered it a terribly poor substitute, and as he quickly learned, it was. The Mandari did not have easy access to the great iron ore supplies of the Gorfinian Black Mountains, nor the Dead Sentinels even further into the desolate hunting grounds of the Rhagastos. They would not even have much access to that immaculate steel imported from the Other World, though no doubt they caught some. No. The Mandari were mineral poor, and as a consequence, their steel blooms – being formed of iron dust at best – were patchy and sub-standard.
Yet somehow they made the finest weapons in the known world. How?
It was something his brothers had no time for. They were too busy rushing through trade, drinking, whoring, and every now and then visiting their wives. They helped their father when he insisted, but it was always begrudging. They would not learn. And so the Mandari ways stayed without their grasp.
But he was hungry where his brothers weren’t, and he absorbed the lessons like a sponge. Each meticulous stage was a miracle, because what the Mandari did with the steel was incredible. Beauty from a beastly mass of ore. There was magic in the act.
First the char-poor steel was worked through an unrelenting process. It took an age to bash that piece of metal until it was near enough a quarter of its original size. But it was essential, because with the heating and hammering, impurities were ejected and faults were closed up. The steel was made strong and complete, the heart of a weapon, and because this was char-poor, the steel was remarkably flexible.
And then the real work began.
The other two steel compounds, char-rich and char-neutral, were heated and layered, bashed also, but folded over one another. Then they were reheated and forge-welded into a single piece of gleaming steel. And the folding created an impossible balance between deadly hard, but subtly flexible. And then, because the folding was done in perpendicular layers, the toughness of the resulting steel was – according to his father at least – unrivalled.
In this exercise he was ignorant, but he hungered to learn, and that was what differentiated him. He drank the knowledge and digested it in his sleep. The whole process consumed him.
After ten days and nights, and from an eye-watering volume of base metal, they had forged a single edged sabre of exceptional quality. And looking back, it had been manufactured from materials that should not have been usable. That was astonishing. And with each passing day, his brothers’ smirks slid into something else entirely. He liked to think it was jealousy. In fact, he had adopted a smirk himself, and he wore it often when his father stood beside him. He enjoyed wearing his pride. It was still a novel experience.
This was one of those moments. It was late evening, the smithy was illuminated by torches, and a cold wind brought bumps to the skin. His brothers were staring upon what he’d made. His father spoke with a mischievous quality.
“Go fetch some rusty old steel, will you Joss.”
Oh the gift! Oh the bloody gift. He walked right across the forge-room and picked a bland looking broadsword that Jeb had only recently finished. “Will this do?”
His father – father! – was smiling broadly, but he did not speak. Not yet. Jeb, by contrast, offered a glower. This was an entirely new sort of hatred.
“Aye. That will just about serve.” His brother’s eyes lit up like a spitting furnace, but he had the immunity of his father. Not that he feared Jeb in any case. His father made him hold out the broadsword, firm as he could, and he braced himself. And then his father proceeded to slash down with the new forged Mandari steel. It bit deeply into the wide weapon, and left a mighty gash in the body of the blade. Jeb would need to re-work it, and he laughed. His father smiled too.
“Still think this is sub-standard steel?”
Oh the joy. Oh the humanity! Was this the crest of a wave?
He left the forge-room, but Jeb caught him on his way out. “I’ll get you for this.”
But he didn’t care. In that moment, he was invincible. In that moment, and perhaps forever.
His whimpering prayers morphed jarringly into a screaming whimper. All went dark around him. No, it had not been light. But he’d been able to see his attackers, and now he couldn’t. Moisture saturated his brow, sweat turning his clothes clingy. But his clothes were still on.
Including his trousers. His arse relaxed.
He was in bed. The scant bed-sheet was heaped limply on the floor. It was the middle of the night, and all was dark around him. His breathing was loud in the silence.
What was that? A dream? A nightmare? It had all seemed so real. The Farmyard Friends were all over him. Punishing him. His breath raced and he tried to slow it, forcing his lungs to a steady rhythm. His hands were crushing the rough canvas sheet that covered the straw of his bedding. This was most peculiar. And scary.
And the worst of it was that he didn’t know why he should be scared.
How many years of his life had been scarred by that history? And he’d been released from that humiliation for three years now. He was free of the horror of the Friends. But he’d never had a nightmare until now. Not one. Something hot and aggressive coursed through him, and he recognised it. It was the same thing that had driven him in the past. It was the inner-anger that drove him to succeed. It was a fear of loss. And then he understood. He’d never had these emotions before because he’d never had to fear loss, but now he did. And the sensation was haunting his dreams.
But what did he really have to lose? Only Delfin’s precious volume had brought the protective streak out of him before, but that text was safe beneath his bed. He lay back down, breath settling. He found himself inspecting the darkness in the room. Damn it, he was now entirely awake. Sleep would not be coming soon. The midnight shadows were heavy indeed, but something caught his attention. All was not dark. He went to investigate.
As he tiptoed from the room, the reality of his new life struck him. He shivered. But more than that, his skin crawled with understanding. He did now have something to lose. That was entirely new.
His father was in the forge room, on his own. He was just sat there under the dancing light of a single candle. The orange glow invaded the corners of the room, and strange shadows stalked the walls of the smithy. As he snuck in, nerves took him, but wherever he looked, there was only familiarity. There was nothing to be afraid of. He caressed the situation.
His father jolted, and it was only when Jossie stepped into the light that the older man visibly relaxed. He had been disturbed from thought. And then the focus of his father’s attention became clear. He understood. The blade lay before him, reflecting the candle-light with awesome majesty. The dance of the metal was almost overwhelming. The patterns were astonishing.
He found himself drawn to the steel, like a moth to a candle. If he loved her before, then now he was obsessed. He lusted after that thing.
“Beautiful isn’t she.” He could only nod in response. “I was wondering whether I could take her for myself.”
“You can’t! Can you?” His words were edged with poorly concealed hope. But no. His father wanted the blade. There was a natural order to things, and he was still bottom of the pile.
“No son, I can’t. I could try to repay the cost, but the only thing I have that is valuable enough is this bloody weapon. It will be heartache to give her away.”
The King was coming tomorrow, and such was his obsession that his stomach dropped. He wanted to hand that weapon over as little as his father did. Maybe less. His hands balled and his father raised his eyebrows. They were sat side by side, father and son. An impossibly gentle hand was placed over his tensed fist.
“What’s wrong, Joss. Why are you up?”
There was no other option but to speak. The nightmare was still vivid, and the thought of handing off this beautiful thing added weight to his mood. He felt small and frightened, scared of a life where he had substance. He was frightened of a life where he had a father, and also of a life where he wasn’t bottom. It was the life he was never destined to have, but now he had it. He looked at the blade before him, and smiled. But there was sourness in his smile. This lump of Mandari steel had turned his life around. And now it was leaving him.
You couldn’t beat a mandahoi, but maybe he didn’t need to. He had another purpose now, didn’t he?
“Come on, son. What is it?”
The nightmare grew vivid and his face was scrunched up. He would have to share the memory. It would consume him, otherwise. And besides, his father needed to know. He was as responsible as anyone.
“You know I’ve been bullied all my life.”
His father gulped, audible tension in the grating of his throat. “I’m sorry, son. Brin told me he had seen some things. Said he couldn’t help you.”
The rage flared like a furnace. “Help me? He was part of the gang.”
There was only silence. The shadows continued to dance the perimeter.
“I have failed you, son. I’m sorry. I never should have let your mother name you.” To his credit, he sounded embarrassed.
All fifteen years of his life were forcing their way inexplicably into his head, every damn painful moment of it. He was on the cusp of something normal, and so his past consumed him. It devoured him. And he needed it to be gone. He may have even loved his father these last few days, but he still hated him certainly. He hated him with a passion born of suffering. The man had to know.
“Do you know what they did to me, father?”
Tears screamed for release, but he held them at bay, gulping them down. Not yet. There would be time for that when he was allowed to have his childhood. But here, he was still the bullied. Here he must be strong.
Because his father was wilting.
“I’m sorry. Of course I know what they did. You came home covered in bruises.” There may have been a reflective glint on his cheek. “And I will repay them everything they did to yer.”
The memories of the violations surfaced and tears started rolling. Resistance was failing. His whole body tensed at the memory, and he pulled away from his father. Intimacy would forever be his worst enemy.
“No father, you won’t. There’s no way you can inflict that punishment.”
His father seemed incensed. It was as if he suddenly recognised a great debt that needed paying. “I will, son. There is no punishment that I will not repay a thousand times over! What could they possibly have done that you consider untouchable?”
It was all but over. He would not last much longer. He had to say it, and then he had to go.
“They used me like a woman, father. They used me like the woman that my name dictates.”
Never before had his father stared at him like that. It was torture and satisfaction rolled into one. He got up and walked to his room. When he had finished pummelling the wall, his fist was bloodied. He only slept when the tears of his childhood had dried up.
When the King turned up the following day – an entire entourage in attendance – he was expecting the order to retreat to the bowels of the smithy. But despite the tension that separated him from his father, he was allowed to stay. His father wanted him by his side. Maybe that was partial payment for the debt. Was that fair? They could discuss that later. This was an opportunity, and anger would not ruin his path to purpose. His life was on track because of this blade, and he needed that to continue. This was a turning point, and his past would not prevent it.
He kneeled as etiquette dictated.
The King stood before them, looking remarkably plain if truth be told. He was ageing, snow spreading through his thick beard and cascading about the golden crown. His cloak was silver-blue, Delfinia’s colours, but beneath that fine garment he was in rather plain clothing. Fine, but plain. Only the high leather boots suggested obvious wealth.
“I hear it’s a fine weapon.” News travelled, apparently. Either that or the King had eyes everywhere.
“Aye, she’s a beauty.”
Everyone in the smithy was on their knees, excepting his father. But even though he was on his knees, he was forward and prominent. That was a rarity in his short life. He only managed infrequent glances from his low vantage, peeking at the King’s Guard in their brightly polished armour, but then he felt eyes upon him and he forced his head down. A heavy hand squeezed his shoulder, and he was ushered up. And there he was, standing before the King. Remarkably, this was the second time in his life, and he smiled broadly.
But the last time, he had been sitting and he’d been beaten to the brink. The King would not see that same soft child here. That was probably good. Here he could stand with the straight back of pride. Pride. It was such a foreign sensation.
“This is my son...” And there it was. His old man refrained from using his embarrassing girl’s name. Damn, that was warming. He may even entirely forgive the man for that gesture alone. His father continued, “he helped with the work.”
And then a young man stepped forward. The youth – who was wearing similar robes and arguably more elaborate underclothes than the King – was a mimic of the older man facially. His chin tapered and he had the high cheekbones that singled him out as high-nobility. The hair was still dark and thick, and the fairness of his skin suggested the young man was little older than himself. And with a flash of the other’s smile, he recognised the youngster.
He had been at the library too. He was the son and the heir.
“Then I thank you.” There was the faintest whiff of recognition in the eyes of the prince. Did he really remember? Would he say anything? His heart skipped and his anger warmed his gut, but the heir turned away. Nothing said and nothing truly recognised. Perhaps.
“I offer this fine decorative dagger as a gift for the work. It would not stand up to your fine craftsmanship, but it has its own subtle worth, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
Hardly subtle. It was glittering with jewels. His father was rendered speechless. The blade was quickly in his father’s hands, and he almost reached out for his portion.
But he stopped himself. He was still bottom, but he did not need that symbol of recognition. He had the firm hand of his father, and the knowing smile of the heir of Delfinia. It was a high point for certain. And perhaps more than that, he had his purpose. He had a genuine purpose. His life had turned for the good, and he wanted to live his name. The remainder of the exchange passed him by.
He may never beat a mandahoi, and for that he was sorry. But he could damn well make weapons as good as they could, and in the end, that was enough. Excitement blossomed, and those words that he’d obsessed over leaked out of his mind. He didn’t need them anymore. He had a name, and he had a purpose. He was the smith.
As he followed his father to the rear of the smithy for a drink – a celebratory drink! – his eldest brother offered a threatening smile. But he would ignore it, or at least he would ignore it for now. In that moment, he was prince of the smithy world.
He woke to chaos. He often woke to chaos, but this was different.
“WHERE IS IT?”
Usually it was the dull clang of steel on near molten steel that stirred him in the morning. That was the sound of his brothers starting their day. To be fair to the idiots, they did have a remarkable capacity for early schedules even despite late festivities, though it could hardly be called a virtue. But today was different. His father was shouting.
He did not have a big room out back in the smithy, and the one source of light was through the chimney of the small hearth. There was a blood red glow to the scant illumination, and that seemed foreboding. He stretched his shoulders, creasing the sleep ache out of his neck, and then threw his legs over the side of the bed. Damn he had slept well. It must have been the fire-liquor he’d shared with his father.
“COME ON YOU BASTARDS, WHERE IS IT?”
His eyes would barely open, such was his grog. He never felt like this. He was hardly the sprightliest morning creature, but he was no slug either. The constant threat of bullies drilled that into you. He tried to shake sense into himself, but he really was groggy this morning. The sound of his brother’s whimpering response only just registered. What had they done? He wanted to laugh at their pathetic display, but he was too tired to laugh. It turned into a yawn. No, the sleep-gremlin had him by the delicates for sure. He could barely function.
And then his door crashed open and his father marched in. The fury was rampant on his face.
“Still here, then?”
The question was aimed at him, but he couldn’t work out for the Uncle what it meant. He tried to shake the weariness away, but from the shadows beyond his father he caught a whiff of something putrid. Jeb was smiling cruelly at him. It was the same ugly smile he’d worn last night. Now he was alert. He stood despite his giddiness.
“Of course I’m still here. Why would I be anywhere else?”
His father flicked his eyes, and he was drawn to a packed rucksack. It was his packed rucksack. The sour smile stretched in the shadows, and the cruel menace of the bullies jumped out of his past. His arse puckered. He had not been subject to that cruelty for three years, but that sense was returning. It was returning fast.
“I don’t know what that’s doing there.”
“Well then, let’s just have a look inside.”
“No!” That was the worst thing that could happen, though he did not know why. His legs moved, but they were not in agreement with each other. He fell to his knees. There was a snigger from the bastards, and it was starting to make sense. They had drugged him. And his father was ripping the items from the bag, feeling about for something in particular. Looking for whatever he had lost.
And then it was obvious, and his father found what he was looking for. Of course it was there, and the rising dread guided him to the reality. He could not survive this. His father would not allow it.
So he ran.
As he pushed between his sneering brothers, he turned back to see his father – the same man who may have actually loved him yesterday – with fury rampant on his face. He was slumped on his knees and held the jewelled dagger above his head.
“After everything I did for you, Jossie. Why would you repay me like this?”
He could not answer because his brothers had it planned. He would never be allowed in this place again.
He raced through the living space, and only remembered that his book was still beneath his bed when he was exiting the smithy. He would miss those words, but he couldn’t go back. Not now. And besides, he still had Delfin’s philosophy etched in his memory. He would not forget that precious gift. It was all he had left of his childhood. He had nothing else to his name. Not even a place to sleep.