“Well,” Vardon said, “this has been a wonderful evening. Thank you, Saine.”
“Oh, we do as well as we can,” my mother responded, “but you’re welcome all the same.”
Remembering my manners, I muttered a “Yes, thank you,” as well, though ‘wonderful’ wasn’t the first word that would have come to mind. ‘Tense’ and ‘awkward’ would both have made their appearances long before ‘wonderful’ arrived.
We’d arrived just before dusk, with a cold wind beginning to blow down from the hills and through the town. My mother and father, Galvyn and Saine Smith, had greeted us at the door; my mother had squeezed me close, telling me how good it was to see me again, and my younger siblings, Thon and Cily, had run forward and clasped themselves around my ribs and my leg, respectively.
My father, on the other hand, had given me a stiff, shoulder-clapping half hug, the sort of hug it was customary to give an acquaintance or a new customer, and then motioned for us to come in and sit down. Oskar had been in the forge, closing it down for the night, but I’d given him a grudging nod as we’d sat down across from each other, and he’d nodded back.
I’d mostly followed Vardon’s advice and kept my mouth shut, letting him talk with my father through supper, one craftsman to another. The meal itself had been quite good, the sort of supper my mother typically only prepared for festival days: pork roasted with spices and salt, slices of potato and winter squash fried in the pork’s fat, a loaf of thick-crusted bread clearly bought for the occasion rather than baked in the small hearth oven. The cider was good as well, strong and sweet, from my father’s pet barrel behind the smithy, but I drank mine watered like my younger siblings did, and had only a single cup. I knew from experience how effective the stuff could be at loosening my tongue, at guiding me to topics of conversation that would become arguments.
And now we’d come to the end of the meal. Oskar had begun collecting the wooden plates from the table at my mother’s request, and my father had refilled his cup and Vardon’s from the clay jug at the middle of the table. He picked up his cup, and held it up in a toast. “Well, here’s to our courageous new soldiers, the protectors of the realm.”
I looked down at the table, uncomfortable. I hadn’t hoped for him to disapprove, exactly, but in the wake of the conversation I’d had with Vardon earlier in the square it stung a little to hear how willing my father was to see me go, me and Oskar both. Besides, I thought with the deeper and more cider-weakened part of my mind, it wasn’t exactly courage that drove me to sign up, was it?
Vardon raised his cup as well. “To our boys, and all the boys of Cantlay. May the Fates bring them back to us.”
My father cleared his throat. “Y-yes. Hear hear.” Oskar, my mother, and the young ones raised their cups, and I followed suit, smiling a little despite myself. Vardon’s mentions of the Fates had always made my father uncomfortable, worried that they’d draw the attention of the wrong sort of spirit. I looked across the table at Vardon, and he met my gaze but kept his face impassive, his expression neither implying nor denying that he’d meant any sort of slight.
As we put our cups down, my father spoke again. “And speaking of you boys, I’ve something for you to see, out in the forge.” He stood, and motioned toward the side door.
I looked at him, then at Oskar, my eyebrow cocked in a question. Oskar shrugged, standing from his chair, and I did the same. As I rounded the table to follow my father, I put my hand on Thon’s head and tousled his hair, and he responded by bumping my side with the back of his head. It was strange, reconciling the image of the short, pudgy little brother I had in my head and the tall skinny youth he had become, but I realized this would be the start of his thirteenth year. He’d be old enough to start an apprenticeship of his own a few weeks from now if my father chose the same thing for Thon that he had for me.
I ducked out the door, into the forge. Either Oskar or my father had lit a lantern and set it on the edge of the forge’s hearth, but dusk had come and gone and the lamp did little to dispel the shadows in the corners of the sooty workshop.
Oskar was pulling a wooden crate out into the middle of the room. My father stopped him with a grunt, and then motioned me over, lifting the crate’s lid. I bent down, and tentatively looked inside. Sitting in rows were what looked like sticks or rods of dull, oiled steel, faintly reflecting the weak light.
I felt my curiosity overcoming my caution. “May I?” I asked, motioning toward the crate.
My father nodded. “Be a little careful of the sharp sides, though.”
I picked up one of the metal objects. Not a rod, I realized, more like a thick but narrow double-edged blade, almost as long as my forearm but no wider than two of my fingers side by side. There were ridges up the flat of the blade on both sides, making it nearly as thick as it was wide, and instead of a handle at the base of the blade those ridges widened out into flat plates, curved inward slightly at the outside edges.
I turned the blade over in my hands. The edges weren’t sharp enough to cut, but the tip was filed to a point. “Daggers?”
“Spear heads,” my father said. “A massive order for us, given that I’m not much for shaping blades.” He took the steel from my hand, set it back in the crate, and lowered the lid. “Ordered by Lord Carson, a few weeks ago. The messenger who made the request said that he’d been commanded to order the same from every smith between His Lordship’s manor and Stony Hill.” He crouched, and reached under the workbench, back behind where the crate of spear heads had been. “So, you might say I expected something like this, like the recruitment. I said as much to Oskar, when we got the order.”
“He did,” Oskar said to me. “Said we might be in for fighting soon.”
My father grunted, and slid a low chest out from under the bench. “This part’s new even to you, Oskar.” He pulled the chest over next to the crate. “Did some of work while you were off getting ore and coal, and Saine did the stitching inside while you were working out here.”
He opened the lid of the chest and reached down inside, pulling out something I thought was a heavy pail at first glance. He handed it to Oskar, and then pulled out another one and tossed it to me. “Turns out I’m about as good at making armor as I am at making spears, but they should be serviceable.”
I looked down at the thing in my hands. I wasn’t that far off in my initial estimation; the helm was more or less an upside-down iron bucket, with riveted bands running around the edge of the top and down the front and back. A narrow eye slit ran across the front behind the band and there were a few holes around where the mouth should be, which seemed fairly unnecessary given that the bottom didn’t close under the chin at all.
“We asked the tailor for your measurements for yours, Colum,” my father said, pressing something else into my hands, “I hope you don’t mind.”
The garment he’d given me looked like a long coat with a high collar and short sleeves, made of heavy tan-colored canvas, lined with a lighter-weight cloth on the inside and with grommets for laces running up the front. It was much heavier than it looked like it should be, but as I ran my hand down the front of the coat I discovered why; between the two layers of material, there were hard plates riveted to the canvas, probably iron like the helms.
“It’s great, boss,” Oskar said. He had a coat, too, and he’d pulled it on. He tried flexing his arms forward, and frowned. “Maybe too tight across the shoulders, though.”
“Ah, sorry,” my father said, “I think I’ve switched them by accident.” He motioned for us to swap.
Sheepishly, I handed the coat I held over to Oskar and took the one he held out to me. Both he and I were big, physically imposing, but where I was big everywhere, barrel-chested like my father, Oskar was big like you’d expect a blacksmith to be, wide shoulders and large chest muscles but slimmer at the waist and hips.
We both pulled the armored jackets on. Now that we had the right ones they fit well enough. To my eyes, my coat and helmet both looked a bit rougher than Oskar’s, a little less care taken to file down the rough edges, the rivets a little more uneven. The light was too dim to really see for sure, though.
Oskar put on his helmet, and turned his head toward me. “Well,” he said, his voice muffled by the metal, “we’ll look like proper soldiers now, eh?”
‘Or like oxen with buckets over their heads,’ was the reply that popped into my head, but I managed to keep myself from blurting it out. Instead, I just gave Oskar another nod.
I sat on the step outside while I waited for Vardon to finish his conversation with my father, and his cider. The armored coat was in a bundle next to me on the step, while I stared down at the helmet in my hands.
The door opened behind me, and my mother stepped out. She sat down beside me on the step, groaning a little as she lowered herself down. “It was good to see you again, Colum.” She raised a hand before I could respond. “I understand why you haven’t come by, after what happened last year, but still. It was good. Your brother and sister have missed you. And he has, too, even if he’s bad at showing it.”
I frowned. ‘He,’ meaning my father. “He’s the reason I’m not here, Ma. You know that as well as I do.”
“Colum…” She shook her head. “It was a bad situation, and we did what we had to.”
I should have known better than to reply, but I’d had a long day and a little cider and was just tired enough to be irritable. I responded before I could stop myself. “With no consideration for what I might want? Or you? I heard you argue with him, I know you didn’t agree with what he chose for me.”
“I didn’t at the time, no, but…” She turned to look at me. “I know you wanted to be his apprentice, to inherit the forge and follow in his footsteps, and that’s what we’d both planned for you. But sometimes the spirits change your plans, and the best luck you can have is to notice when they have and change with them.” She set one of her hands on mine, on top of the helmet. “When he broke his arm that spring, you were too small yet to start. You could only barely lift the heavier hammers, let alone swing them. Your father needed someone who could do the work, not in a year or two but right then and there.”
“And so he had to hire Oskar. That’s fine, but why did he-” The words caught in my throat. I hadn’t ever brought myself to talk about this, not with anyone.
She squeezed my hand. “Even with Oskar helping, your father still couldn’t work as fast as he did before the accident. Less work done meant less food on the table, especially with Oskar joining the household, and we just… we had one more mouth than we could feed, Colum. If we hadn’t apprenticed you to Master Vardon, it would’ve meant putting you or your brother or your sister out on the street to fend for yourself.”
“I very nearly was by myself,” I said, “at least at the beginning. Vardon had only been in Tilaird a year, only in Cantlay for half a season. He barely spoke the language when I moved into the workshop; I think I know more Euphenti than he does Tillish, even now. I was alone in a house with a strange man I couldn’t understand-”
“And you’ve ended up a strong, hard-working young man who can fend for himself.” She looked straight into my eyes, unblinking. “Colum, I think your father made the right decision. I think that everyone is better off than they would have been had we kept you with us, you included.”
I tried to pull my hand away, but she held it firm. “You can hate me for saying that, for siding with him, just like you hate him for sending you away, but between you hating me and you or Cily or Thon starving to death, I’ll take your hatred.”
I tore my hand away from my mother’s and stood up, shoving the helm off my lap and onto the cobbles. “Fine! I’ll be happy to oblige!” I turned and stormed off down the street.
My mother called after me. “Colum, wait.”
I didn’t stop. “You don’t have to worry,” I yelled back at her. “Tomorrow I’ll be gone, off to somewhere I’m wanted!”
I could hear her standing up behind me, could hear the scrape of metal on stone as she picked up the helmet, but I didn’t look back. As far as I was concerned, I was already gone.