The Book of the Flame (working title) Vol 1: They don't call it magic, but it's surely a miraculous art by which a rock yields iron, that iron transmutes to steel and the steel forms a sword. Hematite mined from the lower reaches of the World's Wall mountains bore a well deserved reputation for purity throughout the West, as the friendly burrads of Nok-Hein and Heiras referred to themselves. Accordingly, merchants laded their wagons with barrels of ore and caravanned south from rural, poor Nok-Hein on the widened and sometimes well-patrolled new trade highways southward toward the wealthier burrad of Heiras. At New Lumbertown a small fee rented cranes to transfer the heavy barrels from wagon to barges made of freshly-cut planking. Bargemasters shepherded their cargo down the Greenway to the wide valley through which ran the vast Mambut River.
A few days later, some barges concluded their brief career on the water at the quay in Neibol where the barge's lumber was to be sold. On docks flourishing in such healthy ill-repute, wise merchants hired guild longshoremen to unload their wares and paid the customary 'tip' for protection of their wares to be passed to the local gangsters. A small crowd of alarmingly eager urchins were always on hand to roll the barrels up the switchback to the warehouse district for an eighth part apiece. Most goods sold easily in Neibol, a thriving trade city as it was at the nexus of the upper Mambut and the eponymous Neibol River that drained the Black Range.
The very highest grade of ore in barrels stamped with the buran seal still had a ways further to go beyond the farriers and potmakers of Smithy Row. Neibol's old walls sat on the promontory that was the northeastern-most point of a long spur out from the mountains that ringed the whole southern sky. The High Gate opened onto a road that followed the ridgetop for a bell or two until it split in two against a sudden rise. Like most other traffic from Neibol, loads of hematite took the southern fork and rounded the low reaches of a snow-capped mountain, climbing slowly to meet a high glen fronted by a fortress that served also as the buran capitol.
Meikhei was a very old fortress, its foundations built in the ancient style by forgotten engineers for equally forgotten reasons. To the uninitiated the east end of the glen was remarkable in its low, angular ridges, zigging out and back like the points of a gigantic star, but of course they weren't ridges in any natural sense: the illusion rested on a thin layer of grassy soil obscuring improbably large megaliths formed into immense ramparts. Set back a little ways from those and describing a more regular line rose vertical walls of the modern style. Through a gap in the old and a gate in the new, caravans passed through the walls into Meikhei's settlement. The sheds for coke and wood weren't far from that for the ore, though happily for merchants who shepherded the best Geileshall ore such a long way, the latter brought a much better price. At the customary rate of a coin and two pence per box-weight of ore, the magic of commerce transmuted a wagonload of prime hematite into a purse containing a hundred or so gold squares stamped with an image at least vaguely reminiscent of the Grand Arimisan Bur, who theoretically ruled above all men on the continent of Muginat from his distant capitol in The Crossing.
The Heiran Bur who presided from the Keep, however, represented her preeminence decidedly more with steel than gold, and so the ore destined to become non-theoretical swords approached still closer. Meikhei's famed but malodorous forge complex had long ago outgrown its welcome near the corridors of power, pushing its newer works and the sheds far downwind from everything, but the old weapon-works had so far avoided expulsion by erecting a towering chimney to carry away its fumes. So, up the motte to the Keep the ore rode, in wheelbarrows pushed by forge boys judged strong enough for the work but not yet selected for apprenticeship. Beyond the outer gates the wheelbarrow travelled up a stretch of flagstone road with an expanse of gardens on one hand opposing dog runs and stables on the other. Forge boys noticed no irony in their long trudges through the Keep of Meikhei's outer bailey: to them the word 'keep' had always and only referred to this vast edifice and its demesne that pedants of court Arimisan might explain was only acquired its diminutive sobriquet in comparison to the fortress on which it sat.
Around the massive base of those huge old walls the barrows wended, across a smaller bailey and past the Grand New Furnace, which was actually the oldest and smallest of its brethren but had retained the name by which it had achieved fame. Past the old stone horse troughs that other boys of the yard kept filled now as firefighting cisterns, the barrels came at last to their final destination, waiting for inspection in a neat row to one side of a heavy door of mountain oak, embossed with the seal of the Buran Forge and leading to the modest but comfortable apartment of the Master filling the space between two buttresses.
Master Dubei, occupant of that suite for the four years since he’d become a widower, huddled with an ambitious journeyman who had won his way to a lesson in an antechamber to the hallowed Furnace itself, learning the use of a contraption the Master had invented to weld steel blanks more efficiently than any man in the North had seen before. Thus propagated one more change among many that crowded the last two-hundred years of Muginat, but for all that the proliferation of difference had bewildered those whose lives it altered, the changes were but a sprinkle presaging a flood, or perhaps an ember pregnant with conflagration.
“Eleihas, put that down before you hurt yourself,” the Mastersmith told the seven year old in the same High Arimisan as he used with educated men.
“You let Bedr swing swords.” Eleihas didn’t put the sword down; the scamp knew her father’s first ‘no’ was never final. Harik winced at this latest interruption of the day’s work, including as it did a technique in which he had been waiting to demonstrate competence some months now. It was infuriating that he must tolerate the girl’s impertinence because her father the Mastersmith’s iron sense of discipline struck only softly where his children were concerned.
“Yes, and if Drend doesn’t mind his son lopping his own fingers off, it’s not my place to say. I’d rather you grow old with your hands intact,” the mastersmith reasoned with his whelp, a moderateness he would never have assumed toward a journeyman in error, much less an apprentice.
She waved the sword about a bit more as Master Dubei stood at the anvil with his eyebrows raised, watching her. The Master’s gaze, a lance of which even other Masters dreaded to become the object, eventually made her put it down. For the moment.
A quarter bell later they finally had the steel pressed and ready for the fold and Master Dubei pronounced it ‘fair work’ - not an easy judgement to win. Dubei directed Harik, “Clean that with the scraping stone and the wetcloth before you pack it in the charcoal. Have the new boy help you. Does he have a sootcatch he can wear? Make sure he wears it. I’ll not have this place looking like a farrier’s.”
He turned. “Now, where has my never obedient daughter gotten to?”
Harik shrugged. He had been watching the Master’s technique for working the steel flat, as he was a journeyman, not a nanny. Harik held the common view that despite his deservedly-severe reputation, Master Dubei was a sentimental sort of fool not to take a compliant young bride to care for his children and give him another son. It was all very well that he had been fond of his wife, but one would expect such a learned man to understand that females were fungible. With his wealth and status, he’d have little difficulty finding a pleasant, reliable girl to keep him company and tend his house even if he didn’t wish to remarry.
Harik followed the Master’s eyes to the sword rack. An empty sword rack, he noted, as his master sighed.
“Tell Master Kor I’ll see him in the commons for noonmeal.”
“She’s run off again, eh? You’d best put her to chores mending your clothes or suchlike.” Harik commented. It was forward, true, but the Master seemed well enough pleased with Harik’s work to allow it.
“You’d best hold your tongue, young master, until you have children of your own to look after.” Dubei responded, smiling indulgently as he fingered one of the un-patched holes in his work shirt.
“Me? I’d put my wife to look…” too late Harik realized his slip, cursing himself for his recklessness. Though the Master regarded genial aspersions from journeymen as a sign of confidence in one’s work, reminders that the matrimonial loop the big man still wore referred to a woman four years dead sometimes made the Master quite unreasonable. Harik had learned this early in his tutelage, simultaneously discovering that the Master could lift him off the ground with one hand when he was incensed.
“I’m sorry Master, I meant…” Harik began placatingly, but the Master stopped him with a curt shake of his head.
“I know,” the Master said heavily. “Tell Kor.” The hulking artisan ducked under the doorway out of the foundry, hunched as if he labored under a weight. Dubei lumbered about the workyard looking for his mischievous imp of a daughter. She wasn’t often better at hiding than he was at looking, seeing as he had run the same grounds as a child, but he had enough respect for her powers of mischief that he took his time and listened. In the meantime, he gave cursory inspection to the goings on. As master over the Buran Forge of Meikhei, he was ultimately responsible for all the work being done in the Forge itself as well as that done in the workyards about it. As he moved amongst the tables and machines, the young men working at them straightened their posture and made a show of focusing on their tasks.
Finally Dubei reached the carpenter Ehrald, his chief woodworker. They’d known each other since Ehrald had been an orphan apprentice looking out for a then-scrawny apprentice candidate. Time brought about an exchange in positions, as Dubei became extraordinary both in size and professional achievement before he’d celebrated a score of Meet Feasts. Upon his melancholy appointment as Mastersmith, Dubei had likewise elevated Ehrald to chief woodworker for the forge, retiring Janisk at’Jurisk, who accepted his pension with mildly-palsied equanimity. The mutual debt was deep and welcome, a comfort of belonging for two men without families beyond their children and the Forge.
“Have you seen my little one?” Dubei asked, thumbs hooked into the hemp cord looped around his waist from which hung various tools of his trade.
“I think I saw her skulking off thataway,” Ehrald pointed behind the woodshed vaguely, “Where is your boy? Shouldn’t she be looking after him?”
“Irona has him with her youngest.”
“Ah. Your shirt has so shortage of holes, mastersmith,” he commented with a smile and a poke at Dubei’s threadbare clothes, “You dote on her too much. You’ll spoil her for the hardworking life.”
Dubei waved him off, “I’ll have none of that today, Ehrald. I’ve already heard it from Harik, the cad. Your boy Kel is doing much better, by the way. His cauldron block fit well this time and doesn’t rock.” His palm thumped against Ehrald’s shoulder in congratulations and he moved on toward the woodshed.
As he expected, he found her heaving the sword in lurching arcs behind the tallest pile of lumber as if to hew slow, unobservant enemies arranged passively on each quarter. She was turned away and so did not notice him as he took a thick length of soft pine and leaned toward her.
When she next drew back, the tip of her appropriated blade embedded suddenly in something solid yet yielding.
She looked up through her sweaty locks, eyes wide in surprise and dread to see who she had hit. But then she recognized her towering father holding the wood in which she had buried her erstwhile weapon.
“You’re going to hurt yourself, swinging that so hard. You will strain your arm. Your extra chores will be that much more arduous with your arm strained.”
Eleihas immediately looked contrite. She doubtless wasn’t sure what ‘arduous’ meant, but she caught the important implication: she was going to be punished with extra chores.
“But teikhti, I was just testing the new steel.”
“Is that what you were doing? Regardless, I told you not to,” he saw her mouth beginning to move in protest, “and I have already given my reasons why not.”
“I have not hurt myself.”
“Yet. You have been lucky.”
“I am careful.”
He held up the pine plank with the sword still stuck in it. “Oh? And what might have happened, had I not been watching where I was going? Also, you cannot assume all the swords on that rack have their pins set in the handle. You could give it a strong swing and the blade might fly from the hilt and hit someone.” Not likely, as the wrap held the wooden blocks tightly enough to the tang even before heat soaking so that the pin was mostly superfluous, but Dubei was willing to stretch the truth a bit to drive home his warning. “What sort of careful is that, hurting someone who has done nothing to you?”
Now she looked down at her toe scuffing the ground, and Dubei realized she was trying not to cry.
“But I didn’t mean to hurt anyone. I just wanted to play with it. You said a woman might carry the sword.”
He needed to watch what he said within the child's sharp hearing. He never could stand to hear tears threatening in her voice so he lifted her to sit on the tallest woodpile and stooped so that her downcast eyes would see he wasn't truly angry.
“I understand, my little meikta. You must think a little. Be careful. A sword is not a toy to be played with.” He pulled the blade out of the wood and examined its edge from ingrained habit. The pristine state of the tip gratified him and further blunted his ire; she had learned at least some proper respect for fine steel if she’d kept it from hitting the dirt despite the great weight it surely was to a seven year old. “It is a killing thing, and not for little girls. Like the snout-nose hammer is for detail smithing, not mashing brass coins. And my stone spike is for etching my work, not scratching your name-figures on the Kei-Bur’s flagstones. Why don’t you play with your toys? Like the doll given you by dowager Defiras - what is her name?”
“I’ve not given it a name. It’s not a real person.”
Dubei was taken aback, “Of course, not really, but isn’t that what one does with a doll? You name it as if it were a real person and pretend it is. I thought I saw you playing with it last night.”
“I was calming the little one with it after the storm scared him. I am not four.” Her eyes were dry now but she still sat on the woodpile and her countenance was all stubborn pride that recalled Sunrei when defying her father. His heart both swelled and ached at the ghost of his daughter’s mother.
Dubei lifted her from atop the pile and set her once again on her own two feet, then sat himself on his plank so that they were on a level.
“Oh, my meikta, what am I to do? I know that you have no mother and I work long days in all seasons. I cannot be as much a father as I owe. But still, your first God’s year is over and before you finish another you will be a maiden looking forward to matrimony. You should enjoy your youth when you can because you know the wife to the workingman works twice as hard.” He looked up at her now quizzical face and he held her head between his two big hands. “I’ll marry you as best I can, meikta, but you must keep all your fingers if you want a worthy man. And you’ll make a difficult name for yourself if you keep acting so wild in common witness.
“But I've no wish to play the tyrant,” he continued as she seemed ready to resume her well-worn remonstrations. “I offer you this: I'll not bar your from whatever you do, provided you stay safe, and I must punish you if you are so incautious that I hear of it from someone else. But if I’m no angry tyrant, you had best do your extra chores without protest or argument. Now, what do you wish to do?”
“I wish to pl... swing the sword,” she looked at the weapon that leaned now against the shed wall, “But also I wish to keep all my fingers.”
Dubei breathed a sigh of relief, but too soon.
“So I wish to learn how to be safe. And all about swords and armor and horseshoes and... and...” She struggled for more examples. “And cauldrons and the mysteries of steel.”
Dubei threw up his hands theatrically. “Does my only daughter wish to toil in a forge, a spinster who knows no rest and no children? What a cruel joke is this.”
“Ah, no. For surely the greatest wizards and most renowned officers in all Muginat could not hope to stand against my meikta! And I am only ‘teikhti.’” He hugged her to him, partly because he loved her, and partly because memories of Sunrei were impaling his chest and about to irrigate his vision in front of his daughter.
“I can’t bear this any longer. We’ll discuss this another time…”
“Do I still have extra chores tomorrow?” she asked, still clear eyed and insistent when he had let her go.
He paused for a moment, looking at the sword as it leaned against the pile. “Yes. I said so and I’ll not go back on that.”
“Then may I get my chore’s worth?”
“If I have to do extra chores anyway, then can I pla... practice more with the sword, just a little bit?”
Dubei considered this novel argument a moment, and snorted, “You should be the Kei-Bur’s solicitor!” He affected an exaggerated court accent. “I cannot think of a reason to deny you, big oaf of little skill with contracts that I am.” He continued more seriously, “But first, I’ll teach you a bit about swords and how they must be treated, as you professed to want earlier.”
Apparently the profession had been an earnest one, because Eleihas smiled victoriously. Dubei could not help but be happy in her victory. “A coin of sevens is how many?” Dubei asked relentlessly while Eleihas kept the pot stirred.
“Teikhti, what’s that sort of arithmetic to smithing? You have five hammers, two anvils, a few rods of metal at a time, and a single press. I don’t see you with fifty six of anything.”
Eleihas’ father grinned into the sweet onions he was dicing. “I see your complaint also allowed you time to think. Clever - cleverer if you’d used more courtly language.”
She made a face. “Father, what has that sort of arithmetic to do with smithing?”
“Ahh, now you ask. When I was very little, the Forge was far busier, making scores of scores of swords, scores of hundreds of bodkins, and so many rings for mail I think I could still rivet loops asleep in a blizzard. You will be certain that when I was little, old Master Joslin’s scrivener kept careful count of the whole works when good steel was rare and precious as gold. Today, I can use geometry alone to build my machines with all their parts in proper proportions just as the masons use it to create balanced arches and other such wonders. Lest you think smiths are an exception, masons must track their stone much as we must account for our ingots in wartime. How many stones can be quarried in a day? It may be that the speed of the quarry is the slowest, and so sets the rate at which the wall goes up. If the mason knows the figures, he can still tell his lord how long a wall would take even as the quarry gets older and slower.”
She flicked a little more salt into the stew. “What has masonry to do with smithing? And anyway, surely they’ve built walls before and would know the days.”
“When the wall is a new kind, what then?”
“A new kind of wall?” That was a puzzling idea. “Like a kind of wall they build in Muginarad? Wouldn’t the mason have asked the Muginaradin from whom he learned it?”
Dubei shook his head, looking a little disappointed. “Quarries everywhere are different and require new figuring. And even more, not all new things come from the South. Some things arrive new upon the eyes of the Gods. In some Stonemaster’s mind is built a wall as no one has made before. Like my press is new, as was the Furnace before it.”
The idea interested her so much she surrendered her chance to repay his comment on her grammar by pointing out the blasphemy of implying anything made by men was unknown to the Gods, who knew and saw all. “What kind of wall?”
Dubei shrugged. “I’m no dreamer in masonry; I have no imagination for what a new wall might be. The point of what I’m saying - and the connection with smithing - is that if you want to know the number of something in any unfamiliar situation, you need to know the arithmetical maths as well. In the market, in stitching, in deciding the weight of something that won’t fit on a scale, you should know arithmetic.”
Eleihas sipped at the ladle and tried to think of another objection; she hated remembering all these figures.
Dubei seemed to look at something in the air behind her for an instant, and added, “Had I understood the numbers of our finances better when I tried for mastersmith, things might have turned out differently. Never assume any skill or knowledge to be beyond your need, Eleihas. Never.” “Master Olost?” the girl queried diffidently as she waited at the threshold to the polishing and finishing workshop over which he was Master. His eyesight wasn’t so very good these days, but it was always impossible to mistake Dubei’s eldest, not least because it was otherwise a uniformly male domain.