The Blacksmith

Rovemaster Kynrex was feeling, by and large, pleased with himself.
He wasn’t actually a man given to random acts of hubris, which was why he made a good Rovemaster. He was arrogant and he knew it, but it never got the better of him in the field. His forces moved quickly, sweeping across land, smashing resistance and reporting back significant enemy positions. His job was to make sure that the enemy were already confused and harried, and thoroughly well known by the time that the main army made Realmfall.
Still, today he was feeling smug to a point that even he vaguely acknowledged was absurd. His forces had landed on the Realm which was called ‘Newpeace’ rather idiotically by the weak races, yesterday morning, just before Dawnfire. He’d established quickly, with the help of the Pontifex that had kindly accompanied them, that the Realm was a small colony, perhaps five hundred thousand, mixed races but mostly Eloytians. A small capital city which by luck was only eighteen miles from the landsite. Kynrex had seized the initiative and split his forces into groups of around a hundred, dispatching them to shatter resistance in towns and villages. Most of the populace was scattered around in semi-pastoral communities. Only the capital remained a problem, and for that, Kynrex took three thousand of his finest, and led them at their quickest ice-march towards the city. Within the hour they had arrived. To his vague surprise the locals had managed to get an army together – citizens armed with wood axes, most, but there were a few Eloytian warrior-monks among them, which probably explained how they even knew he was coming. They had probably picked up his hunter-fleet as it approached the Realm. There was always a chance that would happen – each hunter fleet was only big enough to accommodate a hundred thousand soldiers, a single Rovemaster’s taskforce, with the express purpose that they would be able to ride faster currents and be more difficult to detect. But sill they could sometimes be spotted.
In any case, the locals had managed to array a rag-tag eight thousand, mostly poorly armed militia. The small capital city had no walls, and so they doggedly arranged themselves in a long line on the rolling meadows before it. They also seemed to think that they had some advantage in outnumbering Kynrex almost three times over.
They were wrong. By mid Icegaze, the army was smashed and the capital city sacked. The Pontifex had assured him that everywhere, whatever pathetic pockets of resistance the locals could put up were already broken. Newpeace was now in the hands of the Arakul.
He had sent the appropriate signal to General Jarlok’s command ship. It had taken him less than three hours to subdue a Realm. Jarlok ws sure to notice, and Kynrex allowed himself to imagine that within a year, he might be a Hetmaster. A battle-group commander in five. And in ten…
General Kynrex had a good ring to it.
Fatuous dreaming, quite probably, but in the glow of his victory he was content to dream it. And besides, he was sure that his rise was secure. At twenty-seven, he was a true child of the new ways, and he knew it was his fervent belief in the greater destiny of the Arakul and the rule of Xenegesh as much as his natural ability which had seen his rise through the Twenty-Third Division. Because the fact was that the truths that Xenegesh spoke, having cast aside the old ways, made an Arakul better. General he might not yet be, but he knew that glory lie ahead.
Which was why he’d allowed himself a bit of indulgence. Many Rovemasters would have disagreed – and for spite’s sake, there were a hundred of them in the Twenty-Third alone – but he was of the opinion that such a glorious victory should allow both himself and his men some spoils. He’d taken a five-man team and gone foraging for loot, leaving the capital city – which the Pontifex was tiresomely combing through with his Hasturex bodyguard for records or some such – and taken to the outlying villages. After a day and night’s merry trawling, he found a small village, already smashed by a passing hunter-pack which looked like it might have something interesting. Dazed and confused survivors cowered from sight. He had headed for a long, heavy-timbered building, a single storey high. It had turned out to be some sort of town hall where a bunch of scared a bereaved locals had been sheltering. Now they whimpered in the corner next to a great open fireplace as his men sacked the great room, presumably some council meeting place. He cast a contemptuous glance at them as he trawled through a chest, and felt a flash of annoyance at something he didn’t want to see.
A look of defiance.
It was painted on the face of a young Eloytian girl, maybe thirteen summers of age. Both sets of eyes met his glare defiantly. Her skin-crystals bloomed with enraged charge. She wore her tattered dress like a robe of state as she cradled a crying toddler. She carried a small blunt knife and had the nerve to clutch it harder, as if in threat, when their eyes met.
Kynrex felt a spike of rage. How dare the impudent child? When her folk had been fighting, albeit in a futile gesture, where had her defiance? She had been cowering here, and now she had the infernal insolence to meet his look.
The thought that the child would have been too young to fight, and that she looked as though she would have had she been able crossed his mind. And it annoyed him even more. He straightened up, and waved his hand at the group of survivors. There were half a dozen in here, the two children, two ancients long into their dotage, a stunned middle-aged woman with a lame leg and a youth around the same age as the girl. His eyes didn’t focus, as if concussed.
“Kill them!” he snarled. He felt, rather than heard his men move to obey, and sighed to himself as he sensed the one exception. sure enough, Oldfang Arnalok stepped up beside him, his face frowning with repressed anger.
“Rovemaster, that is entirely improper.” He said, his rasping voice carrying with his usual authority.
Kynrex growled as he appraised the old soldier. If he’d known he’d pick up such a tedious relic he’d have picked another squad to join him. Arnalok was of a different era. He spoke of honour and Oaths, and once or twice Kynrex was sure that the old man had been about to mention the Gods of Fire and Ice. Even his rank was an anachronism: ‘Oldfang’ was not so much part a part of the command structure, it was more a voice of the men. It was an indulgence that Xenegesh had allowed, and it infuriated Kynrex. The men needed no voice. They were required to obey, not debate! And Arnalok had carried out his orders to the letter, but had several times questioned Kynrex. And it annoyed him a great deal.
“The girl defies me, soldier,” snapped Kynrex, “she is conquered. I own her life yet she shows me defiance! These weaklings will learn the folly of defiance!”
Arnalok sighed.
“My lord,” he said in a conciliatory tone, “when I was young certain Oaths existed which no longer seem to apply. These Oaths mention that innocents, those who cannot fight must not be harmed. We fight their fighters, and if we win we take what we need, but we do not murder the defenceless. It is an abomination to do so and beneath the honour of the Arakul.”
Kynrex snarled in rage but Arnalok raised a pacifying hand.
“I know that these Oaths no longer hold, my lord, but consider this. If we spare these people, who pose us no threat, they will understand the magnanimity of the mighty Arakul and learn that life ruled by the Supreme Lord Xenegesh will not be as terrible as they may have feared. They will spread word to others. The desperate defiance we have seen here may not be as strong on other Realms if the people know that there will be no merciless death waiting under our rule.”
For a moment, that last bit almost had Kynrex, but then he noted the reaction of his men. It seemed to have swayed them, and they suddenly looked reluctant. He felt a bloom of rage at the old man. He’d managed to turn a squad of elite soldiers into dithering old moralisers. With a roar he hammered a fist into Arnalok’s face, and with such force that it spilled the older soldier onto the floor. He unsheathed his sabre and stalked towards the girl. He would lead by example, and in any case he’d get more satisfaction out of putting down the brat himself. She started back in front of his advance, pushing the wailing toddler behind her and shielding him. There was fear in her eyes, by Kynrex was infuriated to see the defiance was still there as well. He roared and raised his sabre over her.
“You don’t want to be doing that, lad.”
The voice froze Kynrex, his sabre raised. The voice was deep, and powerful, and growling, with a texture like beaten iron. And it resonated. There was no anger in the words, there was no threat, just a simple expression of fact.
He turned to seek the source of the voice.
A Draconis was standing in the doorway of the hall. He was huge – tall even for Draconis, and wide as well. His torso and arms were massively muscled, and his legs thick, like tree trunks. He looked fairly old, and a hundred scars had whipped his face. And by Xenegesh, he was ugly! There was none of the elegant, fluid grace typical of the Draconis about him as he stepped into the room. His scales were discoloured from too many close battles. But all these things struck Kynrex faintly compared to his eyes. Those intense blue eyes, pools of whirling winter with aeons of knowledge behind them. Unblinking, they regarded him with elemental certainty.
For the briefest moment, he thought that a warrior of the Hundred Orders of the Sword, the enemy he had been so extensively briefed on, walked among them. But then the illusion was broken: he didn’t wear battle-robes, with a simple sleeveless jerkin of brown leather, singed by heat and held together with wooden toggles, and a pair of much-patched trousers of the same. He wore sturdy old faded boots. And over his shoulder, almost negligent, leaned a great hammer with a great square head which was flat at both ends. It was a masterful if simple object, and it removed any lingering doubt as the profession of the man. Kynrex let out a short, barking laugh, more of relief than he would have liked to admit.
“Slither back to Eadenn, blacksmith, and do not interfere with me,” he spat.
The blacksmith did not react, and the freezing blue gaze did not falter. When he spoke it was as though Kynrex hadn’t spoken at all.
“There’s no need for anyone to get hurt here, lad. You’ve got what you came for, and no-one begrudges you it. Now, I think you should listen to your Oldfang. He’s got a good head on his shoulders. There’s no reason to go killing a few people right after your triumph when they can’t hurt you. Best to go enjoy your victory elsewhere.”
The tone was reasonable, but the total lack of fear in it, the total confidence of the speak rekindled Kynrex’s rage. Who did this oaf take himself for?
“You speak as though there will be consequences if I do not heed you,” he spat, “but what do you think one blacksmith can achieve against six soldiers?”
The blacksmith’s gaze didn’t waver.
“The odds don’t seem high in my favour, lad. But I won’t let you kill an innocent child. now, there are six of you, and one of me. Odds are I’ll die for that sentiment. But if I walk away knowing what you’d do, it wouldn’t really be living anyway. And do you want to risk the lives of even one or two of your men in such a petty argument when you can leave now with all of your spoils and lose no face?”
Kynrex spat, but beneath his anger he was beginning to feel a strange undercurrent of unease.
“Especially since I’ll make a point of swinging this hammer at you if it comes to it. I don’t think these lads really want to kill children, and the Oldfang’s dead against it. You’d be the one I tried to take with me. Is it worth the risk?”
Kynrex glanced at his men. They looked ill at ease, the same strange sense of losing control of the situation clearly seeping into them. All except the Oldfang.
Arnalok looked at the blacksmith with wide eyes, a mixture of wild fear and awe on his face.
“My lord,” he croaked as he became aware of Kynrex’s scrutiny, “if not for the Oaths and reasons I gave before, I ask you again to leave this course. For the sake of your own life, my lord.”
That was enough for Kynrex. The hurricane of fury returned. Defiant brats, and now his senior soldier scared of some errant tinker!
“Kill him!” he roared, pointing with his sabre.
The order galvanised the men. That order was ingrained into them, and wiped away the fear in any Arakul. Four bodies thundered past him. That the Oldfang did not join them didn’t bother him: four of his finest would cut down the insolent blacksmith quickly enough.
The hammer leapt out with speed that turned Kynrex’s heart to ice. It came about in a blistering arc, smashing through the skull of the foremost Arakul. Lumps of shattered brain and bone spun through the air, but the blacksmith had moved on by then, thundering forward with shocking speed. The hammer came back, around, scorching up and overhead in a blazingly fast and cataclysmic blow, coming down on the head of the second soldier and seeming to compress his skull right into his neck such was the force. The body was still falling as the third Arakul leapt for the blacksmith, snapping his jaws and thrusting with his sabre. The hammer whirled in the air, knocking the blade aside, and the blacksmith rammed a bone-shaking headbutt into the Arakul’s face just as the forth leapt from his other side. Without so much as looking the Draconis backhanded the hammer one-handed. It struck the fourth attacker’s snout and his head was torn around so quickly that Kynrex was sure he could actually hear the neck shatter. Then the hammer was around again, and a thunderous lateral swing smashed into the chest of the dazed Arakul, turning his heart to mush with the power of the blow.
The four Arakul had died in seconds. Kynrex stared in disbelieving horror.
The blacksmith looked up with eyes blazing like a midwinter storm. He glared at Kynrex stonily.
“Four brave lads have just died for you,” he said, his voice still level, “do you have the courage of your conviction?”
Kynrex felt a flash of fear, and doubt, and wondered if he could escape. Then a blast of pride ignited in his heart. The blacksmith was right. Whether he won or lost, he would not be remembered as a coward.
He roared, and leapt forward, sabre ready. Maybe if he feinted left and –
Rovemaster Kynrex never knew where his death came from. All he knew was an ocean of numbness, then a blast of pain, and the strange realisation that his own heart had stopped beating.
In that last moment, he heard, strangely, the blacksmith whispering something which sounded like ‘brave lad’. He had a sudden fleeting hope that maybe the Gods of Fire and Ice were real after all, because when all was done, he rather liked the idea.
Then he spiralled away into darkness, and whatever was beyond.

Oldfang Arnalok was content. He’d been shocked when first he saw the legend walk into the room. The man he’d been told stories off as a boy on the tundras. The great hero who’d fought with and against the Arakul throughout the ages. It had almost amused him that the fool Kynrex didn’t know who he was dealing with. That was all that he and his wretched new ways had brought. Ignorance and foolishness.
Arnalok hefted his sabre, feeling the heavy blade in his hands. He whispered a forbidden prayer to forbidden Gods, knowing it didn’t matter much if those priest-devils heard him. He would die here, and he couldn’t have hoped to die against a great foe.
The blacksmith saw his movement, and raised his hand.
“There’s no need for you to die, lad. I heard what you said. You spoke well. Reminded me… reminded me of a friend I had a long time ago. The greatest of your people, I’d say.”
Arnalok sighed.
“I follow the old ways, Old Thunderbrow,” he said, “wretch that he was, as long as I have a sabre, I must try to avenge Kynrex. The Oath of Brotherhood requires it.”
The blacksmith looked at him, a look of great sadness in his eyes.
“It strikes me as silly that a good man must follow a fool to his death. Still, if I remember that Oath correctly, you’re only bound to it whilst you can fight.”
Arnalok nodded, warily.
“Yes…”
The blacksmith’s hammer flashed out, faster than lightning. The head connected with the back of Arnalok’s sword-hand. The Oldfang yelped as he felt bones shattered, and dropped the sabre. The blacksmith’s weapon came around and down with tectonic force, knocking the blade to splinters. Arnalok growled, forcing his pain under control, and looked to the blacksmith, who was already moving to meet him.
“I shall help you split it,” he said, with no trace of anger, “and I’m fairly sure that you can’t fight now. Honour’s satisfied, lad.”
He reached into his pockets and to Arnalok’s astonishment pulled out a few lengths of offcut wood from one.
“Were I you, Oldfang,” said the blacksmith, “I’d leave this bloody stupid war behind and go back to the tundras of home. I’m certain you can disappear among the legions of your friends and slip back to the wildlands. But if you do go back to your chiefs, carry a message to them for me.”
He looked Arnalok in the eyes.
“Tell them Sternhammer won’t stand for this.”

Molka watched with a sort of detached confusion as Sternhammer spoke to the old Arakul soldier outside. They spoke in low voices, for a few moments only. Then, to her bemusement, Sternhammer shook the Arakul’s good hand and watched as he turned and loped away. He was soon lost to sight over the rolling rise of the meadow, and Sternhammer turned and marched back towards the town house. He wasn’t what Molka would have expected. Everything about him was lumbering and almost metallic, not the smooth grace she’d seen in the party of Draconis she’d once seen when she was six years old. She’d been afraid then, hiding behind Mama’s skirts and peeking out at these wondrous beings walking among them.
Things were different now. Molka was thirteen years old, and she’d done more growing up in the last day than she’d ever wanted to.
The night before last – it seemed like decades – had been so normal. Mama…. Her mother, she chided herself, she was too old to say or even think Mama… had been sewing and singing softly to little Daklar in front of the fire. Molka had just come in from being with her friend Norka. They had pretended to be playing but were actually watching the boys having some kind of strength content and giggling at them. Ma… her mother had looked at her with gentle reprove about the time of her return, but there was no real anger there.
Molka had eaten her supper while talking to her mother about school, and she’d gone to bed expected the morning to bring nothing other than a trip to the dusty schoolhouse, where she anticipated being bored but not unhappy.
Mama… mother had woken her with frantic shaking the next morning. There were tears in her eyes, and fear. Such fear. Molka hadn’t seen such fear in Mama’s eyes since the awful day, long ago, when she’d been told that Papa had been in a logging accident.
Her mother had had no need to tell Molka what was wrong. She heard it in a hundred terrified voices, screaming in the suddenly alive village beyond.
“The Arakul are coming!”
She had felt a spear of ice driven into her by those simple words. The Arakul. Of course she had heard of the Arakul. She remembered hearing the word when she was very young, playing with her dolls on the kitchen floor.
“What’s an Arakul, Mama?”
Mama and Papa both looked sad when she asked them, and looked at each other. Eventually, Papa knelt beside her.
“Molka, you know that sometimes bad things happen. Like when you cut yourself on the fence in the meadow?”
“Yes, Papa?”
“Well, Molka, sometimes bad thing happen to the whole world. It’s nobody’s fault. It just is. The Arakul are like that. They’re a violent people, from far away. We love each other, and we try to live with each other, we try not to be mean to each other. The Arakul aren’t like that. The Arakul live to be mean, and to hurt people.”
Molka shivered.
“Sound horrid.”
Papa nodded sadly.
“They are. But you must not blame them for it, Molka. They can’t help the way they were born. But if you ever hear someone say that the Arakul are coming, you must run, run as fast as you can and tell as many grownups as you can.”

He had died not long after that.
Mama’s outlook was different, she now knew. Papa had said that you couldn’t blame the Arakul. Mama had told her, two years ago, that Papa had been wrong.
“The gentlest of men, your Papa, but too forgiving. Too nice, sometimes. The Arakul are evil incarnate. You remember we told you your grandparents died a long time ago?”
Molka nodded.
“We didn’t want to hurt you, Molka. The truth is that your grandparents were butchered by the Arakul in one of their endless raids. I don’t want to have to tell you this, they were my Mama and Papa and it upsets me to even think of it, but it’s the truth. The Arakul killed them, the way that they kill everything that’s good and pure.”

Mama had also clung to her conviction that the Arakul were gone forever. They’d vanished forty years ago. Even the small skirmish raids had ceased. The wildlands had remained silent since long before Molka’s own birth. Mother had said, with an intensity which sounded to Molka like she was trying to convince herself, that they were really gone.
“Their evil eventually turned back on themselves, and they destroyed themselves.”
It was a comforting notion, but something of it had always nagged vaguely at Molka. Perhaps Mama’s determination, need to believe it. Maybe it was what she had learned at school – there were thousands of Arakul tribes. Surely not all of them could have destroyed themselves in one war?
It had all become unimportant yesterday morning, though. Mama had hugged her, and pressed little Daklar into her arms. She had said something about loving them more than anything. Molka wished she could remember the exact words her mother had spoken before she had told them to stay hidden, hefted her old axe and gone out to die.
The militia had been slaughtered in seconds. Molka had hidden herself and her half-brother in the tiny cellar and watched the brutal massacre through the air-vent near the ceiling, that poked out at ground level.
She had watched in despair as Mama was killed, as the hundred able men and women who had assembled to fight to cut down like corn, barely breaking the stride of the Arakul soldiers.
Molka had seen pictures, but in the flesh the Arakul were far more terrifying. The way that their jackal-snouts snapped about, sniffing the air, and their pointy ears swivelled, rising up and then pressing flat, constantly searching for sound. Those sharp yellow eyes which seemed to be seeking only for her.
But the one that really frightened her wasn’t one she’d ever read about at school. The leader was frightening – a big barking brute two inches taller than the others – but it wasn’t him. After they had done their bloody work, a strange Arakul with a midnight greatcoat had stepped silently from the ranks. He wore a silver faceplate and carried what looked like a wicked scythe. His eyes were not yellow but a strange, ghoulish green. He did not seem as alert as the others, but she’d feared his gaze more than theirs. After a long moment, he’d spoken a quiet word to the leader, who didn’t seem to like it, but nonetheless gave a curt order. And then the Arakul had just swept away. They’d come in, shattered the lives of the little village, and then, within minutes, they were gone again.
Molka had waited a full hour after they’d vanished before emerging, carrying her little half-brother with her. The village was a ghost town. Most of the able adults had been butchered in the farce of a battle. Molka had scooped up a knife from the kitchen and taken her brother outside. She had wandered for a while, until the sound of a cart had driven her to find cover. She hadn’t made it, though – as she scrambled back toward her home a Muxor-pulled cart had trundled into view.
“Oh great Gods of Element!” had gasped a voice, presumably having seen the slaughter. But it was a voice Molka had known. She had turned into the open, her heart feeling a tiny spike of hope, and had felt relief beyond words as she saw Mayor Mylka climbing hurriedly down from her cart. The Mayor was a stout, matronly woman, her skin-crystals beginning to fade in middle-age, and she walked with a pronounced limp that she had acquired in the last Arakul war, when one of the dreaded Strongmen had crushed her leg.
Mylka had seen Molka running towards her, and had swept her up in her strong arms, brother and all.
“Merciful heaven, child, was has happened?” she asked, her voice compassionate but firm.
Molka had stumbled through the story falteringly, calling mother Mama and feeling so stupid that she’d started crying. Mayor Mylka had rocked her and soothed her for long moments. Molka had forced herself to finish the story. As she finished, she saw the that Mayor’s face had hardened grimly.
“We elders always feared that this day would come,” she said wearily, but with a strange determination, “always thought it was too simple and childish an idea that the Arakul had annihilated themselves. My old friend Halomar told me when we left Eloytia to come here that it was a mistake. That the Arakul would come again, and in numbers that would humble the very stars. We didn’t want to believe it. But now we’re saddled with the fact, and we’d best do something about it.”
She smiled kindly at Molka and Daklar.
“It’ll be alright. I promise. But we won’t be able to stay long. They’ll be back soon. Probably not today, or tomorrow, but no more than a week. We’ll need to find out who’s left and get ready to leave. Molka, you look after your little brother. And stay with me.”
And that was what they’d done all that day. There were almost twenty people left in the village, mostly children and the elderly. Mylka had ordered five of the men to dig graves for the dead, which had taken several hours, but the Mayor was determined to keep up what she called the ‘trappings of civilisation’. In the meantime, she’d got the ill into the townhouse – two very old folk, and a simple lad who’d managed to become even more confused by banging his head whilst fleeing the attack. There Mylka could ensure that they remained safe and watched until they were ready to go. She’d started loading up her wagon with food and supplies, which her Muxor had managed to look extraordinarily morose about. There were two other carts in the village, which she had starting scattering provisions into. Molka didn’t want to ask where they were going, because she had a feeling that nowhere they could go would be beyond the reach of the Arakul.
It had been night by the time they were ready.
“We’ll wait ‘til morning,” she had said, “the Arakul see much better in the dark than we do anyway.”
And what a fatal mistake.
They had been awoken at sunrise by the voice of Arakul voices. Mayor Mylka had struggled to her feet, axe in hand, in time for an Arakul soldier to walk in and punch her hard, knocking her into a daze. Three others had followed. Then the old soldier and the big bully. Molka knew that she couldn’t kill an Arakul soldier, but maybe if she got close enough with her blunt knife, she could hurt one if she got him in the eye. Then the big bully had seen her look and ordered her killed. She’d been desperately afraid, but she wasn’t about to let the big bully know that, and she’d met his stare. Then…
Sternhammer.
What Eloytian child hadn’t heard of him? The stories were what every child was told to save them from bad dreams. His family killed by the Markk-nar when he was a child. Dragged away and raised in slavery, the whips of the Markk-nar forging and tempering him. Not of noble birth, not a member of the Orders of the Sword. Just a blacksmith.
A blacksmith who left fallen tyrants in his wake. A blacksmith who saved civilisations. A blacksmith who had chased the king of the Draconis from his forge when he was an arrogant boy. There was an almost mystical quality to the legend of Sternhammer.
And looking at him, she could see it. Certainly, he wasn’t as beautiful as the stories said – she didn’t know what Draconis ladies found attractive, but he was so battered and scarred she was sure that this wasn’t it. But there was something… a sort of unbending quality to him. She was sure he’d have told the big bully to stop, and fought him, if there’d been six hundred Arakul instead of six.
And there was something about the way he’d let the old soldier go that gave her a strange feeling. She was ready to hate all Arakul as her Mama had but… the way that Sternhammer had let him go made her wonder if maybe he hadn’t been as bad as the others. He’d tried to stop the big bully from killing her and the others…
Molka shook the thought off, not sure what to think. Sternhammer made her think that the Arakul weren’t all bad.
And then again, Mama had said that they were. And Mama had been killed by them.
Molka sighed.
And she’d been thinking of mother as Mama.

There wasn’t a great deal left in life that could surprise Mylka. Certainly, the Arakul’s reappearance after forty years didn’t. She come to Newpeace to supervise the little colony, which was an effort to rebuild the lives of bereaved or bankrupt citizens from Eloytia. She’d been dubious about it, right under the shadow of the wildlands, but the Arakul had been gone a long time and she’d allowed herself to believe the fairytale that they were gone forever.
But over the years, her fear had grown. She wasn’t aethyr-sighted, not really, but she was a dream-seer of sorts. A weak one, but sometimes she had vaguely prophetic dreams. She’d told Eald Halomar years ago, and they’d discussed it. He said it shouldn’t be a problem for her and since she had no real interest in it they’d let it be.
But in recent years… she’d had increasingly fearful dreams. Armies of Arakul so large that they blackened the surface of entire Realms, marching with strange, spectral green-eyed creatures ghosting among their ranks. And in the distance… a great shadow, a figure swathed in night, with burning green eyes reaching out from its cowl. And the terrible sense of familiarity.
It had been almost a relief the day before, when Molka had told her of the attack. At last she knew that it was true. The Arakul had returned.
Until Molka had told her of the strange green eyed Arakul. She remembered the spectral creatures of her dreams.
And she remembered Molka’s mother, Kalka, when they had first met many years ago on Eloytia. She had been friends less than a year when the young Kalka had come to her in tears.
Her father had been prospecting near the wildlands. Too close. Kalka and her mother had begged him not to land on the isolated Realm, barely a mile wide, and less than a league from the boundary of the wildlands. They could hear the thunderous boom and roar of the churning lyda, and the jagged glacial wall of that benighted abyss filled the universe. But he’d been determined to continue, talking endlessly about some exciting new type of indefinable rock that they had discovered.
Then the Arakul had come. A single ship, whipping across the border and vomiting a cargo of eerie, green-eyed Arakul. Kalka had said that she had managed to escape, and that the leader of the Arakul had tortured her parents and watched, hidden, with a cold and mechanical efficiency. He had been as fascinated by the rock as Kalka’s father.
Mylka had spent that night, and many afterwards in the same room as Kalka, attempting to drive off her nightmares. Instead, she had absorbed them. She saw it as though she were there. She saw that dreadful Arakul warlord with his burning green eyes, and she heard his name faintly, whispered in the distance.
Xethegoth? Xenegoth?
She wished she could remember. Because she was sure that that was the cold, dispassionate face she would have seen behind that veil of shadows in her own dreams. It was impossible, of course: he’d looked in his thirties then, fifty years ago. An Arakul in his mid thirties then would be dead by now. But she still felt a chill when she thought of it.
But then, the impossible had happened this very morning. She’d been ready to fight the Arakul to the death – hers, almost certainly – and then she’d been punched, dazed. She thought it was a delusion when he’d appeared. Old Sternhammer. She wasn’t sure what to think, when she managed to shake of her spinning head. She wasn’t sure what to say. So she said the very first thing that came to mind.
“Sternhammer.”
The old blacksmith grinned at her. He really was spectacularly ugly.
“You’ve got me at a disadvantage, lass.”
Mylka smiled, feeling somewhat more like a small girl than she was strictly happy with.
“Presumably because everyone knows who you are. I’m Mylka. Mayor of this lovely little settlement. Until yesterday.”
Sternhammer nodded, and cast a look around.
“I’m going to guess that a roving pack of them came in and butchered the militia?”
Mylka nodded with a sigh.
“Young Molka witnessed it, but I can tell you the general details. I was away visiting my cousins in the uplands twelve miles from here. Got back in time to see… well, we buried the bodies.”
Sternhammer nodded, and a strangely empathetic look passed across his face.
“It did strike me odd that a lady willing to attack six Arakul with just an axe would have been more likely to be leading the charge if she were here.”
He paused.
“And don’t think it’s your fault, Mylka: I’ve seen brave men and women eaten up by thinking that if they’d been there they might have changed what simply is.”
Mylka blinked, surprised, and realised with a shock that those very thoughts had been simmering, near the edge of consciousness, for the last day.
Sternhammer stood quiet for a moment, and then hefted his hammer.
“Still, no sense standing here chin-wagging. Arnalok tells me that they’ve already smashed this Realm’s army and that they’ll be wall to wall when the second wave arrives in two days. Apparently ‘his high-and-mighty majesty General Jarlok himself will be walking among us mere mortals’ when they arrive. I have the feeling Arnalok doesn’t care much for him. So I reckon it might be an idea for us to be gone from here by then. We’ll get everyone we can and then head to Eloytia. I think the Parliament of Eltor might be vaguely interested in discovering that the conquering force that they’ve been telling themselves isn’t real for twenty years is on their doorstep.”
Mylka looked around. Molka was enough to make her mother proud, gently feeding her now-calm little half-brother some scraps of food. Old Kellenar was slowly busying himself packing more supplies into the wagon, trying not to stare at Sternhammer. She felt bad for him: he was ancient to the point of enfeeblement at one hundred and forty-one, but he had a soldier’s heart. It had galled him that he could barely stand when the Arakul came, let alone raise a weapon against them. His wife Alika worked with him but was careful not to fuss over him, knowing that helping to pack would at least help him feel useful.
“You’re right, of course. But… Sternhammer… there’re only twenty of us here. And most of us as old as…”
She lowered her voice.
“… as old as Kellenar and Alika. I’m the only one who can fight and I’m a cripple. I agree with you about warning Eloytia, warning the whole Solar Sea, but…maybe you should take the children, and flee as quickly as possible.”
Sternhammer was shaking his head with tectonic finality.
“No. I won’t leave anyone behind. That’s an end of it. How many wagons do you have?”
“Three, but…”
“Well, there you go. A Muxor who can’t pull a wagon with ten people in it simply isn’t bothering. And we won’t need many supplies. We’re only going around forty miles. We’ll stop and pick up your cousin on the way.”
Mylka frowned.
“What’s forty miles away?”
Sternhammer grinned.
“My boat. I’ve only been a couple of days myself. As ever, I find the worst times to drop in. you’d think after nine and a half centuries the divinities would give me a quiet week or two. But no. Hello there, lad?”
He strolled over to where Hongar, the simple lad, was still sitting looking confused.
“Yes, sir?” he said, scrambling to his feet, eager to please as ever when someone showed interest in him.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
Hongar looked shocked and ecstatic. No-one ever bothered to ask him who he was.
“I’m Hongar, sir. I help Mr. Sontar at the woodmill with lifting and carrying and cutting down trees sometimes. Well… I was, I mean, sir, but now he’s dead…”
He looked disheartened and confused for a moment, then brightened up a little.
I’d love to be a proper carpenter sir, only I never was good at learnin’ things.”
Sternhammer smiled a genuinely warm smile.
“Well, lad, I may be a blacksmith but I know a few things about wood. Maybe when this is over I can show a bit of carpentry. In the meantime, you look like a good strong sort of fellow. I’d like you to go around town with Mayor Mylka and help all the older folks get to the wagons. It’s an important job, and I’m trusting you with it because I think you won’t let me down.”
Hongar stood up straight and nodded, overwhelming pride on his face.
“You won’t be sorry, Mr. Sternhammer sir.”
Mylka looked at the young simpleton with a sense of subtle awe. He had always been vaguely depressive and unsure of himself, constantly reminded no matter how kind people were that he wasn’t as quick on the uptake or as able as them. And yet in one minute Sternhammer had him bristling with pride and responsibility.
The blacksmith swung back to her and winked.
“He’s a good lad, Mylka,” he said quietly, “I have a decent eye for these things. But you need to go. These people will need your presence to reassure them. You might need to be firm with one or two to get them to leave, but like a say, I know people, and I know a leader when I see one. They’ll follow you.”
And just like that, Mylka felt it to. Maybe it was the simple words, maybe it was the absolute and genuine faith behind them, but suddenly she knew she’d rather face the Arakul all over again than disappoint Sternhammer.
“I’ll get on that. We’ll meet back here in twenty minutes?”
Sternhammer nodded.
“That should be enough time. And then we should get underway. Arnalok assures me it’ll be a while before Jarlok misses that oaf Kynrex’s report – he’s got a hundred others like him in the field – but he’ll notice eventually.”
Mylka paused.
“That’s twice you’ve mentioned that Arakul. Are you sure you can trust what he says? He’s an Arakul, after all.”
A strange expression passed across the blacksmith’s face at the last five words, like a patient weariness, and Mylka suddenly felt ashamed of what she’d said.
“I’m sure,” said Sternhammer amiably, “because he’s a good man.”

Molka watched the Mayor and Hongar hurry away. The two old people were outside at the wagon and she realised with sudden shock that and little Daklar were alone with Sternhammer. As if her thoughts had alerted him, he looked around at them. She had expected to find his scrutiny frightening, but as he looked at her with a gentle smile he seemed nothing more than a kindly blacksmith. He might have been a local man, passing the townhouse to pay his respects. He came over in great, lumbering strides and sat down next to her on the floor, the great hammer clunking down on the floor.
“Hello,” he said brightly, “I’m Ezyriel.”
She blinked.
“I thought you were Sternhammer.”
He chuckled gently.
“That I am. The name my mother gave me was Ezyriel, though.”
She looked at him, intrigued.
“Then how did you get the name?”
He leaned back for a moment with a contented sigh.
“When I was a lad, learning metalwork, the man who taught me thought that I was very grave. Very serious. So he gave me the name Sternhammer. It was a good thing, actually. His people only gave you a name like that if you’d done something really amazing or if they thought a lot of you.”
She felt a flush of surprise at the throwaway remark. She couldn’t imagine being raised away from Mama, let alone away from her people.
Of course, now she’d have to get used to that. Mama… mother… was gone…
She pushed that thought aside.
“He wasn’t your father, then?”
Sternhammer shook his head.
“No, my parents died when I was very young. But enough of that for now. What’s your name, and who’s this young fellow?”
Molka smiled tentatively.
“I’m Molka, and this is my half brother Daklar. My Papa died when I was very young too. Daklar’s father is Mama’s new husband, Morlar. He’s nice. He worries I’m going to be horrid to him because he’s not my Papa, but I like him. He’s always kind to me. But he’s been away a year now, at the Parliament of Eltor.”
Sternhammer nodded.
“Well, we’ll make sure that you two find him once we arrive. Meanwhile, I’d like you to tell me about what happened. Mayor Mylka said she could tell me, but you saw it. And I’d rather hear it from you.”
Molka didn’t want to have to tell it all again, but there was something about Sternhammer, something that made it seem alright to tell it. It even seemed like the awful bit where Mama died might not be as awful.
She told the whole story again, and this time it didn’t seem to go on for as long. She was surprised how much better she felt for telling it. Sternhammer sat and listened, watching her with those brilliant blue eyes.
Only at the end did his expression change. When she mentioned the Arakul with the green eyes, his eyes widened in what might have been shock or anger.
“Do you know what he was?” she asked immediately, because of all the things that had happened, somehow that strange figure in his silver face-plate seemed now the most awful.
Sternhammer’s eyes were far away and grim for a moment before he replied.
“Aye, I have one or two ideas. Best not worry about it, Molka. There’s some things you’re better off not knowing.”
She finished her story, and Sternhammer nodded.
“There’s nothing I can say to make it better,” he said quietly, “nothing in this world can make it alright that your mother’s dead, and it would be insulting to you to try. All I can say, from experience, is that it’ll get better. Not today. Not tomorrow. But eventually. You’ll not forget her. You won’t love her any the less. But the pain will get better.”
He slowly stood up.
“Now, lass, I think you should bring your brother and get into the wagons outside. We’ll have another chance to talk later, if you’d like.”
He smiled gently.
“You’re a brave and strong lass, Molka. I saw it before. Not many girls your age would be ready to take on that fool Kynrex with a little knife like that. I know you’ll be strong enough to make it.”
He reached out a hand and helped her to her feet. She attempted to lift her brother, but realised that her strength had deserted her. She was shaking slightly as her body began to realise how miraculous her survival of her confrontation with Kynrex had been. Sternhammer moved back and scooped the boy up gently in one arm, lifting the hammer with the other. Daklar stared up at him, all four eyes open with wonder. Sternhammer smiled at him.
“Come now, little fellow,” he said softly, “I’m not that ugly.”
Daklar giggled, and hugged Sternhammer’s scaled neck with small, chubby arms.
Molka smiled, feeling tentative happiness for the first time in what felt like decades.
“Let’s go find a new home,” she said.
Sternhammer nodded and led her out to the waiting wagons.

It took twenty-nine minutes before they were ready to go. By that time there were nineteen survivors loaded onto the three wagons, as well as enough provision to last them three days, though Sternhammer had said it would take them maybe two days to reach his boat. The blacksmith himself did not ride, saying with a laugh that he had no desire to deal with the baleful Muxor that had to bear his weight for two days. Instead he walked alongside the wagons with that rolling mechanical lumber which looked like it could go on forever with abating.
Strangely, in spite of the devastation wreaked upon their lives, there was an air of optimism about the little convoy as it set out. They were leaving their homes, many of their loved ones were dead, and the Arakul were swarming everywhere on the Realm which many of them had come to as a new start. But none of that seemed to matter. Because for all that they had lost, all of them knew that they had something that their enemies did not.
They had Sternhammer.

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Published in: on February 1, 2009 at 11:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

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