When Ryden grew tired of the sound of raindrops sizzling on hot timbers, he stood and headed for the stables at the edge of the village. When he arrived he found five healthy, if hungry, horses waiting for him.
Fortunately the flames from the night before had not reached the stables, so the great animals were still sheltered from the rain and the worst of the wind. He quickly fed and watered them, calmed them and brushed them down.
Melca had stayed behind to watch the last embers of the fire and when Ryden returned, the baker was staring vacantly at the charred skeletons of his family and friends. He was drenched to the skin and shivering uncontrollably. Ryden hoisted him to his feet and led him back to the smithy, where he helped him into a chair in the front room and handed him a blanket.
The fire in this room doubled up as the blacksmith’s forge. It was about seven feet wide and set a foot into the ground, both to contain heat and to prevent sparks from flying across the wooden floor. There were a lot of burn-marks in the floorboards nonetheless, some of which had been caused by Ryden and many more by his father before him, as a result of items being lifted from the forge to the anvil and hammered into shape. Above the fire was an immense chimneybreast, eight feet wide at the base but narrowing swiftly to prevent cold air from filling the room.
Ryden lit the fire and went to fetch the kettle from the kitchen, then spotted half a bottle of malt whiskey on a shelf next to the herbs and spices. It had belonged to his father and Ryden had drunk no more than a few small glasses, but tonight he needed one.
He carried it back to the front room and sat in the chair opposite Melca. Handing his friend a glass, he filled it with a small measure and then poured one for himself.
The fire was picking up, but despite its size it always took a while to warm the room. Melca was holding the blanket tightly around his shoulders but at least he’d stopped shivering. He took a mouthful of his drink and spluttered. ‘I’m not used to drinking such strong drinks,’ he confided, ‘but it does make you feel lovely and warm!’
Ryden laughed. Melca had a strange demeanour, almost womanly. He had a tendency to gossip like a housewife and think far too much about things like dressing fashionably and cleaning under his nails.
It had provoked several jokes at his expense, but Melca seemed to be blissfully unaware of the rumours. At any rate it didn’t matter now, given that the people who had spoken them were no longer around.
That was a sobering thought. Ryden cast his eyes around the room and then sat bolt upright as a thought came to him. ‘We’d better decide what to take with us. After all, we may never come back here. What do you think is most important?’
‘I don’t want to take anything. I don’t want to be reminded of what happened.’
‘Really? I don’t want to leave anything behind,’ Ryden replied. ’This house is full of memories that I don’t want to forget. Besides, whatever we leave here will be taken by someone else, maybe scavengers or raiding parties from the Kappish army. I’d hate to think that all these things my father worked so hard for are going to fall into the hands of looters and thieves.
He scanned the room and his eyes fell on the dusty bookshelf, leaning up against one wall. There were dozens of books; far too many for him to carry on horseback. Many of them had covers missing, or were warped from damp, and the titles that were still visible meant nothing to him. He read them aloud. ‘How The Elders Lived. Waiting For The Storm. The Day Of The Ancients... do you know these books, Mel?’
‘No. We don’t have many books,’ Melca shrugged. ‘What’s in there?’ He was pointing to a large unmarked chest, almost five feet in length, which lay against the far wall like a slumbering beast.
‘I don’t know; I’ve never opened it. I’m not even sure where the key is.’
The heavy chest was made of a strong, dark wood with brass hinges and clasps, tinged green in the corners. A large brass padlock almost as wide as Ryden’s fist hung from the ring at the front of the chest, reflecting the flickering light from the struggling fire.
Ryden went back to the kitchen and began rummaging in cupboards and drawers, then remembered seeing a ring of keys on a hook behind the front door. By the time he returned, the fire had almost died and large, ominous shadows were jumping around the walls, finally cowering into darkness as the last of the flames gave way to glowing coals. He stoked up the fire and added two large rounds of wood before returning his attention to the chest.
Amongst a number of heavy iron keys on the ring was one of tarnished brass, which he picked out and slipped into the sturdy padlock. Much to his surprise, the key turned easily and the mechanism sprang open.
He pulled off the lock and tossed it to one side, then released his breath in a long, loud sigh as he raised the lid.
There were several items inside. First, his eyes were drawn to a small leather pouch with a brown drawstring. As he lifted it out he heard the satisfying clink of coins, so he opened it and poured the contents into his hand.
Eight large gold coins that he recognised as guineas shone in his palm. His jaw fell open. Eight guineas was a lot of money and although it was by no means a fortune, it was certainly enough to build a decent-sized house or buy eight good horses.
This must have been his father’s life savings. Even for an exceptional piece of work he would have made no more than a quart for a sword or axe, perhaps a half-guinea for a full suit of armour. Ryden made a quick calculation. Four quarts to a guinea; that meant he held in his hand the equivalent of thirty-two high-value items sold. Probably a full year’s work.
There were other coins as well. A couple of shillings and quarts, plus a few that he didn’t recognise; one large silver piece with a broad river embossed on one side and a selection of smaller coins with the same emblem.
He looked up at Melca, expecting some kind of reaction, but the tubby baker had begun to doze in his chair. He returned the coins and put the purse to one side.
The next item was a small book with a worn red leather binding. The painted lettering on the front had peeled in places, making it impossible to read. He opened it with great care and flicked through a few pages. There were lists of numbers and abbreviations that he didn’t understand, but he was excited to see that the handwriting was his father’s. Several pages contained what looked like journal entries and he read a short passage to himself, tracing the words with his finger as he did so.
The rain has not stopped since we arrived. This is a miserable place to meet, hidden away in some long-forgotten village like fugitives. Cernos and Mida have travelled for days to get here and are weary from lack of sleep, but Carrick insists that we cannot be too careful.
The world changes, kings rise and fall and still we continue with our task; though the Author only knows whether our efforts will be made in vain.
It made no sense to Ryden. He knew his father had worked for King Rogar once, many years ago, so perhaps he kept a diary during that time. He flicked through the rest of the book, stopping occasionally to read entries, then put the book to one side and returned his attention to the chest.
A blue silk shirt lay at one end, folded neatly. He opened it out and held it up to his body, admiring it. It was extremely well-made. The sleeves were ruffled and bunched at the cuff like a swordsman’s tunic, the neckline was open and there was a small emblem of a panther on the left breast. Beneath the shirt was a pair of breeches, a thick leather belt and some knee-length brown leather boots adorned with metal studs and rivets.
The last item in the chest was a staff, about four feet long with rudimentary carvings running up the sides. The handle was a roughly-hewn sphere, comfortable to hold, but the staff itself was almost five inches in diameter and surprisingly heavy. Ryden could not imagine anyone wanting such an ugly and cumbersome object.
As he turned it over in his hands, Melca let out a particularly loud snore and woke himself up. His eyes were bleary.
‘Wha’s that?’ he asked, his voice thick with sleep.
‘I’ve no idea,’ Ryden said, running his fingers over the engravings. ‘Whatever it is, I don’t need it. I wonder why my father kept it locked away.’
He took a large mouthful of whiskey and twitched involuntarily as he swallowed it. ‘Well I’m not going to leave it for some Kapp soldier to find,’ he announced firmly, dropping the staff heavily into the fire and sending hot orange sparks flying up the chimney.
‘What else is here?’ Melca asked. ‘We can take some things with us to sell in Sharbury if you like?’
Ryden led his friend to the back room of the house, where all the unsold stock was kept. Amongst the stacks of horseshoes, farm tools and pots and pans, they found several swords and daggers, an enormous two-headed axe and a suit of chainmail armour. Ryden remembered his father working on a similar piece once before and recalled how intricate and time-consuming it was to connect all the links.
He decided to keep it for himself, along with a curved sword and an ornate dagger with a green leather handle. Casting his eyes around the room one last time, his eyes settled on a small black handheld crossbow.
‘Mel, what do you think of this? It could be good for hunting.’ As he said it, Mel’s face lit up and he stepped forward to examine it, turning it over in his hands.
‘You should definitely take this, Ry. They’re not that common so it’s probably worth a bob or two.’
‘I wouldn’t even know how to load it, let alone shoot with it. If you like it, it’s yours.’
Melca’s eyes widened and he beamed at Ryden. ‘Thank you,’ he gushed, and immediately began rummaging to find the accompanying bolts.
Ryden had already moved to the far corner of the room, where he found a collection of much older weapons wrapped in sacking, rusted through lack of care and perishing with age. Judging by the uneven edges, the pores in the blades and the fact that some had been fractured or snapped clean in half, he guessed that these were his father’s early attempts at forging; no good to anyone but kept as a kind of memento.
They were not unlike the pieces he himself had produced, which was strangely reassuring. His father was once no more skilled than he, and yet had developed to the stage where he could produce weaponry and armour fit for a king. Weirder still was that, even now, Ryden was discovering new things about a man that was two years dead.
When they finally returned to the front room, a smell like hot iron reached Ryden’s nose. Instinctively his eyes were drawn to the fire and he saw snatches of a dull purple glow amidst the orange coals. Air was escaping from the forge, making a loud hissing sound. He moved closer and saw that inside the old staff, which was now blackened and charred, burned a column of metal.
Fascinated, he reached for the poker and tongs and pushed the wood away, exposing more of the metal within. The glow was dark, still nowhere near white-hot, but he carefully removed it and placed it on the anvil in the far corner of the room.
‘What is it?’ Melca asked over his shoulder, pouring himself another whiskey.
‘That’s what I’m trying to work out. It’s too hard to be lead, but tin and brass smell different. I guess it must be iron or steel, but there are no signs of rust. I’ll leave it on the heat for a while longer; if it is iron it will be white hot in half an hour and we can test its strength.’
Once the bar was back in the forge, Ryden gathered the books he wanted to take with him and wrapped them up using the clothes he had found in the chest. He placed these at the bottom of a shoulder bag, occasionally glancing at the glowing metal in the forge. He went upstairs to collect some of his own clothes and when he returned, Melca looked horrified.
‘Is that all you’re taking, two extra shirts? Do you know how long it might be before we’re able to wash them? I’ll be taking eight changes at the very least!’
Ryden chuckled. ‘And you will be the best-dressed traveller there ever was! Will you be taking a washboard and a range of soaps as well?’
‘I guess I should,’ Melca replied seriously. ‘I hadn’t thought of that!’
Ryden shook his head in disbelief. ‘Sometimes I really wonder about you, Mel.’
Melca frowned and then pointed to the forge. ‘How’s your bit of metal doing? Is it hot enough yet?’
Ryden went over to the fire and lifted the bar with a set of tongs. It was still only a dull orange. Assuming that the fire wasn’t hot enough, he built up some more wood in the forge and nestled the bar back within the glowing coals.
A further half an hour passed and the rod had still only just begun to turn yellow, so Ryden fetched a book that outlined the characteristics of metals. There were some he hadn’t heard of but none that were so much tougher than iron. He retrieved the bar once again and placed it carefully on the anvil to examine it.
Despite the heat, the surface of the metal was as smooth as glass. There were no blemishes or imperfections and when he tried to manipulate it using various tools, he found it to be firm and strong.
‘I don’t know what it is, but I like it,’ he told Melca. ‘I’m going to make a sword from it.’ When there was no response he looked up. Melca was asleep in the armchair once again.
The large grandfather clock in the hall chimed midnight as Ryden set to work.
The room tasted of hot metal. It was the dead of night and Ryden sat in his armchair, gazing into the burning coals, while the comforting smell swirled around him. His father’s smell.
This was his solace. As a young boy he had always been fascinated by the glow of hot steel, the chimes of the hammer striking the metal, the sparks flicking onto the cold anvil. It had seemed so magical then, the long winter days filled with his father’s gentle humming as he worked tirelessly in the heat of the forge.
After the fateful raid that had left Ryden an orphan, the responsibility of the forge fell to him and learning the trade had been no easy task. What he hadn’t learnt during childhood he had tried to pick up from books or from the advice of the townsfolk.
The most useful counsel had come from Tristan, the cobbler. ‘Use only the best materials’, he would say, ‘and learn from them. If I make a shoe from strong leather and the seams split, I need stronger thread. If I fasten the buckle and it breaks off, I need stronger glue. But if I use the best leather, the toughest thread and the strongest glue, all that can fail is my workmanship. And that is how you learn.’
So Ryden had practised. He tempered kitchen knives only to find the blades would bend during use. He tried strengthening the metal with ground animal bones but used too much, making the steel brittle and useless. Once he forged a spade-head from pure iron, hammering and shaping it as his father had shown him, then fixed it onto the strongest oak staff and watched with dismay as it broke off in its first use.
Yet he’d persevered. Every day, while all his peers were at school, he would be found hammering and honing from the crack of dawn until dusk, and little by little his skills had improved.
The fire spat a large orange spark across the scarred floorboards, landing next to Ryden’s foot. He rose from the chair and plucked the orange column from the coals using two sets of tongs. He rested it on the anvil, wiped sweat from his face with blackened hands, and gathered up the hammer once again.
The sword was proving rather more difficult to make than he had imagined. For every ten minutes he spent pounding the metal, he had to return it to the fire for another thirty minutes to make it more malleable.
After much toil he succeeded in making an almost flat blade, three inches wide and about three and a half feet long. The cross-guard for the hilt was impossible to make from the same metal, so in the end he used an alloy of steel and brass, almost gold in colour, which he threaded over the blade and pinned in place.
He rounded the bottom of the hilt into a pommel and as an afterthought, punched a deep hollow into each side, into which he set two cut emeralds. It was a frivolous use of the largest jewels in his father’s collection, but the creative spirit had taken him and they did set off the bright metal beautifully. As a finishing touch, he hammered a moulding into each side of the cross-guard, giving it a regal look.
When he stepped back to admire his work, he heard the clock chime five o’clock. Hot, sweating and exhausted, Ryden collapsed into a chair and fell asleep.
In his dreams Ryden ran from an unseen enemy, through endless streets built high on all sides with houses. His blood was pumping hard, causing his head to throb, and his lungs were burning. Ahead he saw the Plough and Harrow, familiar amongst the unknown buildings, and raced inside. Silas lay on the floor in a pool of blood. Above him, Melca hung limply from a beam.
His eyes snapped open. It took a moment for him to adjust to his surroundings and as the events of the day before came flooding back he leapt to his feet, instantly worried about Melca.
He needn’t have been. Melca walked back into the room seconds later, acknowledged his friend with ‘Oh, you’re awake,’ and hung the kettle over the fire to boil.
‘What were you making last night?’ Melca asked. ‘Other than a racket, I mean. I woke up a couple of times and you were hammering away at something on the anvil.’
Ryden glanced across the room, remembering the sword. He walked over and closed his hand around the hilt to lift it. It was the first time he’d held the new metal in his bare hands and it felt smooth to the touch; like a glazed ceramic tile or a highly polished piece of furniture. He was also surprised at how light the sword was, compared to others of its size.
He examined his handiwork, eager to see whether his hours of labour had been worthwhile. The blade was straight and flat on both sides, with no nicks or bobbles. The cross-guard was secure with no sign that it would come loose.
He turned his attention to the hilt. It was a good length, about seven inches which would allow it to be held in two hands if necessary, and the pommel provided a useful counterweight as well as an eye-catching finish.
Finally, he checked the balance of the sword. Holding his hand straight out in front of him, thumb pointing upwards, he placed the flat of the blade on the side of his forefinger with the cross-guard touching the back of his hand. He let go of the sword and was relieved to see that it remained almost perfectly horizontal. All too often he had completed a sword only to find that the blade weighed more than the hilt, making the weapon cumbersome and unwieldy.
Satisfied, he handed it hilt-first to Melca, who looked at it in awe. ‘Did you do this all last night, Ry? It’s beautiful. I think this is probably the best piece you’ve ever made!’
‘I still don’t know what metal it is,’ Ryden replied. ‘It might not be any good. If it’s too brittle it will snap the moment it makes contact.’
A shrill whistle interrupted him. Melca hooked the kettle out of the fire and poured hot water over some Conbas leaves in a porcelain jug. ‘Do you fancy a cup of Deria?’ he asked Ryden as he stirred the stewing leaves.
Ryden murmured a yes, although his attention was elsewhere. He continued to gaze at the sword, before standing abruptly and striding out of the room. He returned moments later with a roll of green-stained leather. He cut off a long strip and coated the back of it in glue before wrapping it tightly around the grip of the sword.
Melca poured out the drinks and then passed Ryden a piece of bread, which he speared on a long fork and toasted over the flames.
‘I’m going to miss this old place, you know,’ Ryden mused as he stared into the fire. ‘I never considered leaving it before.’
‘All good things must come to an end,’ Melca replied softly.
Once they had finished their breakfast, Melca returned to the bakery to pack for the journey. When he returned half an hour later, lugging three heavy bags overflowing with clothes, he found Ryden sharpening the new sword. The whetstone was operated by a foot-pump, which he was kicking so hard that sparks were cascading from the blade in a constant stream. The metal was humming like a violin being bowed at quarter speed.
‘How’s it coming along?’ Melca asked, dropping into a chair.
‘I don’t think it’ll get much sharper, to be honest. I was just passing the time.’ Catching sight of the bags Melca had brought, he added, ‘do we really need to take your entire wardrobe? Spare a thought for the poor horse that has to carry you!’
‘It’s only a few things!’ Melca said defensively. ‘One of those bags is food for the journey, which I don’t suppose you’d considered?’
He was right; Ryden hadn’t even given it a second thought. ‘Well, it’s probably time we were going then,’ he said, changing the subject. ‘By the way, I’ve tested this sword and it seems solid enough, so you can have the cutlass.’ He passed it to Melca along with a sword-belt.
‘I don’t think it’ll do me much good, Ry. I’ve never even used a sword before.’
‘That’s as maybe, but you shouldn’t travel without one all the same.’
As they stepped out into the morning sun, Ryden cast a final look back at his childhood home and sighed. He pressed his lips together, straightened up, and headed towards the stables with Melca walking silently alongside him.
Wilbur’s stables were large and dry, having been built to strict specifications only a few years before, and the five inhabitants looked calm and content after the turmoil of recent events. Having no knowledge of horses, Melca’s eyes were immediately drawn to a stallion in the far corner.
It was a magnificent beast of some seventeen hands, almost pure white, with fiery eyes and a long, flowing mane. ‘If I have to ride one of these smelly beasts, I want to at least look good!’ Melca declared, walking over to the stall as if to stake his claim.
‘I don’t mean to rain on your parade,’ Ryden commented, ’but if you tried to ride him you would look far from good. Firstly, without experience you’ll find it easier to learn on a shorter horse and secondly this is a stallion, so he’ll be wilder and harder to control.
‘You would be better with Storm here instead,’ he suggested, gesturing to the nameplate above a dappled grey mare. He went over to her and rested his palm under her chin, pulling her lip back with his thumb. ‘She looks about nine years old, seems fairly unassuming and at about fifteen hands is probably a more comfortable height as well.’
‘How do you know how old they are?’ Melca asked.
‘Well I’m just guessing, based on the markings and condition of her teeth, but if you want a more accurate age you can always cut her in half and count the rings.’
Melca laughed, although it was more down to nerves than because of the joke. He had been on a horse only once in his sixteen years and had hoped not to have to again. ‘So which one will you have?’ he asked Ryden, casting his eyes across the other three horses in the stable. One was black and two were reddish-brown; other than that he couldn’t tell anything about them.
Ryden stepped into one of the stalls. He walked around each horse in turn, running his hands over their flanks and legs, looking at their teeth and hooves and speaking to each of them in a soothing voice. It made no sense to Melca. Finally Ryden turned to him and said, ‘I will take Rusty.’
At sixteen and a half hands, Rusty was a strong chestnut gelding, about seven years old, and had recently been shod.
‘The black horse, Sable, is at least twenty years old and shows signs of a sway back,’ Ryden explained. ‘The other chargers appear in good health but the mare seems less spirited. I like Rusty, he has a spark in his eyes and I think he’ll make a good companion.’
‘You sound like you’re choosing a wife rather than a horse! He’s only got to carry you for a few days.’
‘There is always demand for a good horse and I’d like to have one for my own. Maybe once we’ve found somewhere new I’ll have my own stable to keep him in and I’ll ride him every week.’
‘Well I won’t. The moment we settle somewhere I’ll sell Storm and never go near a horse again.’
Ryden chuckled and shook his head. He could see that teaching Melca to understand horses would be like teaching a pig to play cards but he smiled and said nothing. Packing some grain into a pair of saddlebags, he brushed Rusty down and then showed Melca how to saddle and bridle him.
While Melca prepared Storm for the journey, Ryden did the same for Shannon, the chestnut mare, who he’d decided to take along as a pack-horse.
When they were ready, Ryden turned the other horses out into the paddock to graze, then walked Melca and Storm round the yard a couple of times, teaching Melca the basics. When the baker was confident enough to sit on Storm without clinging to her neck for dear life, Ryden said, ‘Lesson one is over. Now let’s head off before it gets too late in the day.’
Grumbling, Melca waited for Ryden to secure his bags onto Shannon’s saddle and then they set off in a slow trot, Ryden leading Shannon alongside him. As they reached the edge of the village, Ryden reined in his mount and looked back down the main street, his heart heavy.
Between the rows of charred cottages, the burnt remains of the funeral pyre loomed up black and ghastly from the dusty square. He shuddered.
His thoughts were interrupted by Melca’s panicked voice and he realised that his friend was now over forty yards away and showing no signs of slowing. Laughing, the young blacksmith turned his back on Cadmir and rode away.