SFReader 2010 Story Contest
Third Place Winner
Margaret McGaffey Fisk developed a love for different cultures while wandering archaeological sites as a Foreign Service brat in the Middle East. A combined anthropology and creative writing degree continued that focus, but a healthy dose of science fiction and fantasy took her in unexpected directions. She currently lives in Nevada, another desertscape, with her husband, two sons, and four cats. Along with the more traditional hobbies of quilting and playing the guitar, Margaret enjoys her occasional forays into feral cat taming. Her speculative fiction appears in the following anthologies: Aurora in the Dawn by Aurora Wolf, Cloaked in Shadow by Fantasist Enterprises and Triangulation 2004 by PARSEC. Visit her website at http://margaretfisk.mmfcf.com
Aki staggered as one of the water buckets on her shoulder bar jerked toward the ground. High-pitched laughter assaulted her ears.
“Leave me be.” She glared at the little gods who grinned from within her bucket. “If I don’t get the water to the smithy before Starn’s done working the sword, I’ll feel his strap for days.”
The little gods frowned and shook their heads, but at least they leapt down. In midair, they transformed into water and sank into the dirt path, leaving a muddy patch to snare the next wagon to come through.
Aki groaned at how much water the gods had taken, but she couldn’t go back. She’d almost reached the outskirts where Starn practiced his craft and reluctantly taught her its secrets.
“Where is that fool girl?”
His voice thundered across the open land, and Aki flinched, spilling even more water.
The swordsmith’s hammer clanged down on the anvil as he continued in a familiar refrain. “Lord Hanvold would never have left me shorthanded. He was young, but he knew not to strip us of our men just to fight foreign wars.”
Her leather apron scraped the step and tripped her. One bucket thumped on the doorway.
Across the room, Starn froze, hammer suspended in the air. His expression quickly turned to anger when he saw who made the noise. “Get your skinny legs in here and ready the cooling vat,” he commanded. “I’ll not have another sword go sour because you’re too busy spirit talking.” He grimaced, making the ward sign against the little gods.
She scrambled over to the barrel. The chilled fresh water poured into the heated batch. Aki blinked steam from her eyes. She fumbled blindly for the second bucket and bumped the barrel instead.
“Watch yourself. If you weren’t such a lightweight, you’d have knocked it over. You’re as much trouble as those little gods you attract. Good for nothing but making mischief. Worse than no apprentice at all.”
Starn glowered and straightened the leather strap protecting his hand. “I’ve salted the solution,” he said, walking the heated blade over from the anvil. “Can’t trust the hardening to you.”
He dipped his free hand into the brine to check the temperature before lowering the hot blade. The sword hissed when it pierced the surface, sending up a scent not unlike a winter stew, heavy in salt and the tang of metal.
They shared a smile before Starn remembered how much he despised her for drawing the little gods. He turned away, leaving the sword to rest on the barrel’s metal edge.
“You watch the cooling. I’ll start on the guard,” he said, selecting a heated iron rod from the forge.
Aki chose a leather strap and wrapped it around her hand while she climbed on her stool. She turned the blade, checking that it still glowed hot and blue. If she failed, the reheated blade would be weaker.
Under her breath, she hummed a spell song Starn had taught her to time the task. Learning the song marked the first step in becoming a swordsmith; the first of many she planned to take.
Aki shook her head and focused on the blade. Even when humming, she still needed to pay attention.
The gravel in front of the smithy crunched, and she lost her place in the song. Aki glanced at the swordsmith to see if he’d noticed her slip.
He stared at the entryway.
They rarely got visitors anymore. Few needed swords in a barren village with most knights already on the battlefields.
The jangle of chainmail caught her attention, and Aki watched the tall, dark-haired man stride in with a sword held loosely in one hand.
“Smith. I hear tell you’re the best around these parts–the only one in truth.”
Starn placed the raw iron onto his anvil and moved toward the man, his shoulders curved in a deference Aki found strange even as she felt the authority this knight carried.
“I’m an able swordsmith, yes.”
The knight scowled and dropped his sword onto the front table.
The clang when it struck echoed through the smithy, making their partially finished pieces ring.
“Here man. That’s no way to handle a sword,” Starn said, the mistreatment restoring his normal demeanor. “You can ruin even a good blade that way.”
The knight laughed a humorless sound that made Aki’s skin shiver. “My sword’s the best ever forged, and though I’m gentle like a wet nurse, still it won’t hold an edge. If my man keeps polishing, there’ll be none left.” He pointed to a groove visible even to Aki at the barrel.
She leaned out, trying to get a closer look and water splashed on her blouse. Aki jerked back, terrified she’d dropped her charge and somehow damaged the blade.
A little god sat on the cooling sword, shaking its head back and forth. Whatever the villagers thought, the little gods were often kind to her. Aki pulled the blade free of the water, relieved to see its smooth color. She smiled her thanks even as she glanced over at Starn.
Though he couldn’t see or hear the little gods, somehow he always knew when she brought them into the smithy. It didn’t matter if she said they helped. He didn’t want the spirits anywhere near his work.
This time though, the knight distracted him with tales of how his sword balked at every attempt to keep its edge.
She placed the new blade into the cooling oil that would add flexibility to its strength and approached the table where they discussed the chipped sword. A gasp escaped her lips at the sight of the beautiful pattern formed by different metals. Starn couldn’t produce Damascus steel, but she’d seen some before. Her hand stretched out unbidden, wanting to touch the mottled surface. A few of the knights up at the keep had such blades, and they kept them as close, or closer, than their wives.
“Out of my way, girl. Can’t you see I’m with a customer?”
Aki stepped back, pulling her wet blouse away from her skin. The damp cloth itched, uncomfortable in the forge’s heat. She dried her hands on her thighs and leaned sideways, trying to see the sword.
The knight stepped forward, his shadow dark against the table. The stench of sweat, musk, and grease passed over her. A faint tang of citrus made a feeble attempt to mask the odor.
Aki gagged when she identified the rest of the smell. Old blood. The knight smelled like a carcass left too long in the sun.
“Now there’s a pretty decoration. Keep her around for the slow times, eh?” The knight caught her chin with his calloused hand and looked her over.
She glanced down to see how the wet cloth revealed her form where the apron didn’t cover. Aki shuddered.
The knight tightened his hold on her face until she could feel each finger.
“She’s enough to keep me busy while you fix my blade.”
Starn gripped the knight’s wrist, giving the other man a hard stare. “She’s no decoration. My apprentice. Mind you leave her to her work.”
The knight released his hold, but kept his gaze fixed on Aki. “Apprentice, eh? That’s not what we call them on the battlefield. Come here, girl. I wouldn’t have thought boy’s clothing appealing, but on you..?”
She fought the commanding tone, shaking her head.
“She’s no camp follower either,” Starn growled in a tone he usually reserved for her. He grabbed her shoulder and pulled Aki behind him.
The combination of iron, coal dust, and honest sweat replaced the other man’s odor. The swordsmith’s familiar scent calmed her, and she tossed a defiant look at the knight.
“She’s from a good family. See the soot on her hands?” Starn grabbed her wrist and displayed a palm still marked by the leather strapping that had protected her flesh. “She’s a worker. We have to make do with what we can.”
“You that low in men?” A frown drew the knight’s thick eyebrows together.
“The new lord ain’t Lord Hanvold. Stripped us of all but the old and infirm to fight his wars.”
Annoyance made Starn careless, and Aki trembled.
The knight’s frown deepened then he laughed all of a sudden. “That stripling didn’t know how to war. A real lord takes what he needs. Never forget who protects your workers.” He made the word sound dirty. “Coddling his peasants only bought Hanvold a painful death and a worse afterlife.”
Sensing danger, Aki grabbed Starn’s hand, holding it back from the blade lying so temptingly before the swordsmith. Starn had met their old lord and revered his memory.
The swordsmith shook off her touch and drew in a deep breath, his hands clenched on the table.
“Enough,” the knight said. “My lord had the wisdom to keep you from the battle and me in it. Do what you’re meant for, smith. Fix my sword.”
Starn stared at the knight for a long moment before turning to the blade, his hands caressing its length as they sought out all the nicks and divots.
Aki moved next to him, drawn by the sword.
Starn glanced up long enough to frown. He nodded toward the back of the smithy. Though she wanted to touch the blade, she wisely retreated to the forge and shoveled ash away from the fire so the logs wouldn’t smother. She listened to their dickering with half an ear.
“Return sundown tomorrow and we’ll see where it is.”
Starn’s voice pulled Aki from her task, and she turned to watch the knight leave. He paused in the doorway, his shadow stretching the length of the room to brush against her. When he stepped through, she breathed a sigh of relief. The whole smithy seemed brighter with his absence.
Aki walked up to Starn. “Thank you for that.”
“For what?” The swordsmith ignored the blade on the table and moved to his anvil. He pushed the cooled iron off. It fell to the stone floor with a sullen thump. Starn chose a fresh bar from the fire and started drawing it out with measured whacks.
“For speaking to that man,” Aki persisted. “I just–” She stopped when Starn slammed his hammer against the anvil and turned to face her.
“I didn’t do it for you. I did it for your poor mother and your father’s spirit. He’d be the first to cringe seeing you here with soot on your face. Isn’t it shame enough to know their daughter speaks to trouble-making spirits? If there’d been any other choice, I’d have laughed when you asked to work here. As soon as a boy grows big enough, you’re out, you and those spirits you try to hide.”
He scowled at her for a moment before picking up his hammer and bringing it down harder than he should have for a second time.
“Get to your duties. Bad enough I can’t trust you to add the water; now you’re distracting customers.”
He glared, and Aki swallowed against a tight throat. She headed for the fire, wiping moisture from her face that she swore came from the heat.
The abandoned sword drew her. Aki wanted to see its patina and touch its strong, flexible length. It pulled so sharply that she often caught herself walking toward the front.
The swordsmith’s foul mood showed in the slam of hammer against anvil. At least he kept away from the half-made swords. His brute force would only shatter them.
Aki dropped the clamp in her hand, barely missing her toe.
“Clumsy idiot! My tools are worth more than you’ll ever be. Drop another and I swear I’ll beat you bloody.” Starn waved the hot rod, sending sparks skittering across the floor.
She clenched her teeth. The mournful hiss had sounded nothing like the little gods. They never used words. If anything, the voice scared her more than Starn’s warning.
Aki ignored the whispers for the rest of the day, performing her tasks with such care that none of the little gods appeared to scold her.
Finally, the sun slipped behind their mountain, and she put the last rod in place.
“Thinking about your supper, are you?”
Aki tensed. “The sun’s sinking.”
“We’ve still got that sword to deal with.” He waved at the table she’d been avoiding. He must have exhausted his foul mood and now felt ready to work on the fine Damascus steel.
Her hand hovered over the sword before she even realized she’d moved.
He snatched the blade away. “Ah, what a beauty. Let’s see what we can do to rush you back into the hands of your master.”
The sword twisted like a living thing, and its edge bit Starn’s wrist. Aki blinked, not believing what she’d seen.
“Take it! Take it!” he shouted, shoving the sword at her.
Aki reached for the blade, but again it contorted. She grabbed the hilt right above Starn’s hand and pulled the sword away.
She almost dropped the sword, but at the last moment lowered it down on the table and backed away as fast as she could. “It’s a blooded sword,” she whispered.
“Nonsense, girl. Blooding swords was outlawed centuries past, and no one could make this blade so long ago.” Starn used his teeth to tighten a rag around his wrist. “You heat it for a bit, just to soften, and I’ll get those nicks out right quick.”
“But–” Aki met his glare and knew she had no choice. She reached out and brushed the hilt, ready to jerk her hand away. She didn’t hear a sound.
Grasping the sword firmly, Aki picked it up and stuck the blade into the fire. Flames played along its blue-silver length.
The voice didn’t sound as hungry as before. Aki ignored it, determined not to give Starn any reason to blame this on her as he did the little gods.
She jerked away, the pitiful cry eating at her. There are no blooded swords, she told herself. Starn knows all about swords. He’s good enough that even the new lord didn’t send him to battle.
The voice fell silent, convinced even if she was not.
A short while later, she pulled the blade free with iron tongs and placed it on Starn’s anvil. It made no sound.
The swordsmith began to sing the forging song as he fixed the chips. She waited for Starn to explain how the reforging would weaken the sword, but sharpening made the blade even frailer. He always explained.
“I don’t need you any longer. We’ll finish the work in the morning,” he said without losing his place in the song.
She stared at him, but he only nodded toward the door.
Quiet filled the smithy when Aki returned with a full belly. The swordsmith had gone home to his wife.
She checked the fire, making sure Starn had banked the coals. He’d blame her if something went wrong, no matter who prepared the forge.
The shelf that held the Damascus blade loomed in front of her. She stared at the sword, wanting to check the repair but unwilling to hear the voice.
There are no blooded swords, she reminded herself while she braided her hair and settled onto her straw pallet. What kind of man could treat a sword like that so poorly? As she drifted off to sleep, she heard the voice calling to her.
Hot, rough skin pressed against the inside of her leggings, and her body jolted with the pounding of her mount’s hooves. Sound battered her ears: shouts, cries of pain, and the clash of blades.
Aki stared around her. Warriors attacked each other with no thought to survival or compassion.
An arm rose from her shoulder though the muscled, hair-covered limb clutching a sword clearly belonged to a man.
Her wonder cut short when another sword appeared from nowhere.
She raised her blade to meet it. The screech of metal on metal rang out over the battlefield. Her helmeted opponent struck with a bewildering series of blows. The other swordsman seemed to attack her sword rather than trying for her, but Aki knew little of swordplay.
Red-hot pain tore through her sword arm, which faltered. She reached to brace her shoulder with her other hand, surprised she hadn’t seen the blow. Her fingers found blood-stiffened linens poking through a jagged tear in her coat. Her opponent hadn’t needed to strike her. He reopened an existing injury.
She raised her blade with a trembling hand. Sunlight flashed along the other man’s sword, and it came down like a demon. Aki never felt the hit. Waves of crippling pain surged through her, and her fingers loosened.
Hands pulled her down. She cried out when twine bound her arms together and sent a fresh burst of agony through her shoulder.
Then something smashed into the back of her head, and she slipped into unconsciousness.
Water splashed her face, jerking Aki awake. She shivered in the chill of night. Spikes of pain ran along her fingers. She’d worn the bonds for some time.
The battlefield stretched before her, fallen horses and comrades outlined by the full moon. Aki hung her head, knowing they’d failed.
A rough hand grabbed her chin, the touch familiar. “So was it worth it? Would surrender have been so hard? You should never have returned wounded. You’d already lost.”
“My people will not succumb to your lord. We’ve seen what happens to those who fall under his tender mercies.” The words spat from her mouth unbidden.
The man laughed then ground his palm against her shoulder. Through waves of pain, Aki saw his face and recognized him. The knight who came to buy Starn’s skills.
“A pity really. I’d hoped for a real battle. You have a lion’s heart, if the brains of a peasant. You could have joined us and ruled these lands in his name.”
He reached forward to pat her cheek, but she jerked back. “I’ll not serve your lord should my life be forfeit.”
“Ah, such spirit even now. Just think how that energy will serve me.”
“I’ll no more serve you than your master.” Again, the words sprang from her lips.
The knight laughed, pivoting her with her injured shoulder until she stared at a man working an anvil. She leaned forward to catch the comforting beats of the forge song, but these words sounded twisted and wrong.
Fear bound her as the rhythm continued, rising and falling to end in a harsh call. A newly formed sword rose into the moonlight. White illumination caught the heated blue, and it danced before her eyes in the familiar pattern of Damascus steel.
Blooded swords are forbidden. The words cried through her mind, but Starn’s declaration had no power here.
“Your life is forfeit,” the knight growled. “Yours and those of your honor guard.”
Jerked again, Aki saw five men also bound. Though she didn’t know them, the body she wore burned with hatred. “Leave them be. You can have my life in ransom for theirs. I swear they’ll honor the agreement.”
The knight laughed. His eyes gleamed red in the fire’s reflected light as he wrapped leather straps around both palms. “I won’t take their lives. You will. For sustenance.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but didn’t get the chance.
The swordsmith appeared next to the knight, guttural words still pouring from his mouth. He placed the steaming sword into the knight’s protected palms.
Aki stared transfixed.
The chanting grew louder. The knight raised the sword above his head.
The hot metal plunged down, striking first her chest, then parting her ribs to pierce her heart.
A cry of pain, terror, and despair all mixed into one escaped her lips. Her shuddering breath brought the stench of singed flesh into her lungs, and fire seared her nerves.
Hurt overwhelmed her until it seemed like nothing existed but the throbbing agony and the words hammering her over and over.
Suddenly, Aki floated above a body that knelt with a sword protruding from its chest. The pain fell away and the chanting faded to a hum.
She reached for the sky, but instead of rising, she was jerked down. A warm, tangy sensation swept over her, not quite a touch, smell, or any human sense, but more like a little god’s whisper in her ear. Only this time, the feeling grew until it trapped her. Flickering gray-blue light blocked every effort to escape back into the unfettered sky.
Aki jerked awake, heart pounding and sweat drying on her skin. Just a dream, she told herself. “There are no blooded swords.”
Even aloud, the words rang hollow in the morning air. Aki tensed, knowing she’d see the knight again.
She rubbed the blanket across her face and pulled on her clothes. Her hands shook when she raised the buckets to her shoulders, but still she set out for the well. Starn would come soon, and she’d best have her chores done.
Morning passed with no pleading from the sword, but Aki could feel its sullen disappointment. Despite her denials, she knew her vision had been true.
After scraping away the ashes, she added firewood and pumped the bellows until yellow flames licked the new logs. Little gods glared at her as sullen as the sword. She grabbed an iron bar and thrust it into the fire.
Aki shrank into the shadows when she heard the voice, the skin above her heart burning.
The despairing cry cut through her thoughts, and rage swept over her, wiping out any belief in Starn’s claim.
Over the pounding of her blood, she heard the swordsmith call out. “Isn’t sundown just yet, but the work’s done.”
Aki circled the forge and headed for the sword. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Starn move toward the shelf, then pause.
He gave her a hard stare before turning to the knight. “My apprentice will get it.”
She felt the man’s gaze. Her hand trembled as she reached for the sword, unsurprised when it twisted in its weird, spectral manner. She watched for a pattern and grabbed the hilt.
A deep moan resonated through the contact, but she didn’t hesitate. With all her might, Aki jerked so the blade leapt off the shelf and dove toward the hard stone floor. She understood now why such a well-made sword had suffered so much abuse. It courted chips and gouges in hopes of shattering.
Starn slapped her cheek hard, and she staggered back. The unbroken sword gleamed.
“Is it damaged?”
The knight’s tone drew a strange look from Starn, but Aki understood his desperation all too well.
The swordsmith ran a hand along the blade. It lay quiescent.
“A minor chip. I’ll have it fixed by sundown, I swear.”
The knight stared at Starn, wearing the same expression he had in the moonlight some time ago. “I’ll stay here, and you’ll do it now. No mistakes, no delays.”
Starn cuffed Aki on the shoulder. “Heat up the coals.”
She raced to the bellows, her guts twisted with the knowledge that she’d failed both the sword and swordsmith.
The swordsmith thrust the blade into the fire, sending her a black look that promised stiff punishment.
Her hand crept up to cover her throbbing cheek, tears pooling from loss more than pain. She relived when the man had become a sword that would feed first on his most trusted friends.
This is whom you leave me to.
“Girl, you watch that steel.”
For a moment, confusion filled her, thinking Starn had asked her to protect the blade from its master.
“When it’s hot, I’ll fix it up proper,” the swordsmith told the knight.
“I can’t,” she whispered, but knew she had to act. Starn would never trust her again. Damascus steel. He’d never forgive her.
She stared at the blade, seeing the trapped spirit in the dance of heat along its length. He’d only been trying to protect his people, protect them from the same lord who stripped her village of boys and left only thin stew to feed those who remained.
Flames outlined the chip, and suddenly, she knew how Starn would strike it. The smithy fell away, leaving only her and the sword. She couldn’t deny him, couldn’t leave him trapped on the chance of Starn’s acceptance. How would she live with herself, knowing no other could hear his cries?
A quick glance showed Starn and the knight busy talking. Aki nudged the iron bar she’d put in earlier until its glowing edge rested against the place where Starn would strike. A shiver ran through her as if she’d touched the searing flames. Along with the sensation came gratitude.
She watched the blade heat, struggling with the need to move the bar, to warn Starn, to save what little remained of her future. She did none of those things. No spirit deserved this fate. Would the sword ever find another able to listen?
When heat colored the sword properly, Aki wrapped her hands and pulled it free. She placed the blade across the anvil, her arms trembling.
Starn reached for his hammer without checking the color, a rare sign of his confidence in her work.
Aki raised a hand to stop him, only to let it fall. The swordsmith’s trust would shatter at his first blow.
Starn pulled his arm back, humming under his breath. No little gods came to answer the call of his spell song, to help her in this.
The hammer fell toward the anvil, and black clouds appeared from nowhere, swallowing the sun. She glanced at the knight, but his gaze remained fixed on the sword.
The spang of hammer against steel jerked her attention back in time to duck as half the blade flew across the room. Its quivering length embedded into the wall.
Starn’s gasp, and a moan from the knight, drew her attention back to the remaining part on the anvil. A mist rose from the shattered blade, and formed the shadowy impression of a young man.
“Lord Hanvold,” Starn cried, dropping to his knees.
It nodded once before turning to the knight, a frown on its translucent face.
The knight looked to either side as if seeking escape.
I am what you made me..
The words sent a shiver down Aki’s spine as fear for what she’d released swept through her.
The knight dove for the wall of half-finished swords, and the ghost drew a blade of pure light, anticipating the knight’s charge.
Aki half expected the clang of metal, but the knight’s sword failed to hinder the ghost’s blade. It pierced the man’s shoulder, and she grabbed her own arm, feeling an echo of the wound she’d shared.
In the diffuse illumination, the knight looked as gray as the ghost. He clutched his shoulder, throwing the sword at–and through–the spirit he’d trapped. The length of metal clattered to the ground inches from Starn, but the swordsmith did not flinch.
The knight dropped to his knees. “Have mercy,” he pleaded.
I give you the same mercy you offered me and my sworn men.
Aki fell against the table as the ghost drove its sword into the knight’s chest. An inhuman squeal rang harsh against her ears, and she stared at the vengeful spirit. What had become of the man she’d seen in her dream?
It pulled the blade out, and the knight crumpled, all life gone from his body. The ghost’s sword now throbbed, its brightness quenched on the knight’s blood.
The ghost turned to look her way, blade raised.
Aki moaned. Was this her price for having freed a broken soul? Not her dreams, but her very life.
The ghost smiled.
Clouds parted, flooding the smithy with sunlight.
Before Aki could react, it swept past and thrust the blade into the forge with a shriek of metal on stone.
God of Forges take from me this tainted soul. Never again will he violate the sacred blade.
Little gods appeared in the flames, swarming over the sword and scratching at it until the red stain pulled free.
Starn gasped again, and Aki realized he finally saw the gods that had plagued her since childhood.
The ghost pulled forth the now-clear blade and drifted toward Aki. She shivered, but held her ground.
Never doubt what you can do. You have a strong heart. The unseen world knows and trusts you.
It pressed a kiss on her bruised cheek, soothing the hurt.
You will become a great swordsmith. The spirits of the forge, anvil, and water will aid your efforts.
“My lord,” Starn cried. “What of me?”
Treasure what you have and train her well.
Starn bowed his head, accepting the ghostly hand on his shoulder.
The sunlight brightened until it blinded Aki. When the light faded, both ghost and knight’s body had vanished.
For a moment, she wondered if it had all been a dream, then her gaze fell on the broken blade, still protruding from the wall.
Starn followed her glance and gave an awkward laugh. “What say you?” he asked. “Want to try a hand at the anvil?”
For once, the chatter of little gods didn’t scare her. Aki smiled as she accepted their cheers.Share