The hamlet of Trasath was not a happy place. Too recently in the memory of its population tragedy had struck, and it had warped all of their lives. By the Kingdom’s reckoning it was in the eighth year of King Arenth’s reign that the snow started falling early and thaw came late. To complicate the already tense situation of a long winter on normal stores, the weather was so bad that it drove the wolves from the hills as far north and west as Trasath. The village wasn’t prepared for such an unheard of occurence, nor for the ferocity and ravening hunger of the misplaced predators. That came to be known as the Wolf Winter and it claimed more than half of the lives in Trasath.
Certain people in the village saw the tragedy as an opportunity to gain power and prestige. Forces were called on, pacts were made, and assurances were given to the remaining populace that the Wolf Winter would never come again – as long as everyone did as they were told. Even 12 years later, the effects of the Wolf Winter were still being felt in Trasath.
I knelt beside Keryin’s grave as I had so many times before, and placed the roses I carried before the simple cruciform headstone that bore only her name. I had missed my sister from the day she died five years ago, but now I would miss her even more. For my father was sending me to the ducal seat, Dargon, to be apprenticed to his sister’s husband as a blacksmith. It wasn’t what I wanted to do – either go to Dargon or become a blacksmith – but I had to obey my father. What made the decision strange, however, was that I would be the first person to leave Trasath for any length of time since the Wolf Winter 12 years ago. Trasath had yet to really recover from that, and it needed every able hand to keep it alive, yet I was being sent away. It didn’t make sense.
Even so, I was going. I would miss my parents and the village, but I would miss Keryin the most. She was fifteen when she died, and I only nine, but we were still best of friends. Even her grave seemed able to comfort me when I was feeling very lonely or depressed. I said good-bye to her yet again, rose, and walked back to the house.
The circumstances of Keryin’s death were still a mystery to me so long after the fact. No one would answer the questions of her grieving brother. In fact, it seemed as if I had been the only one to grieve – the rest of the villagers hardly let it upset their daily routines. I couldn’t even learn whether she had been slain by an animal, or had been taken by a sudden illness in her bed. The mystery was just one small piece of strangeness in a strange town, though. I hadn’t travelled far in my fourteen years (in fact, not at all), but I was sure from the wandering tale-tellers’ stories that Trasath was not like most small villages. Here the neighbors were all dour and taciturn, each careful about seeming to mind his own business while trying to mind everyone else’s. There was much sneaking and much suspicion and at times I thought I would be glad to get out of such a place.
As I approached my home, I heard voices within. Two men by the sound of it, and they must have been in the front room as well for they weren’t speaking very loudly.
The first voice was that of Master Dineel, the tavern-keeper. I caught him in mid-sentence and the part I heard made no sense. Neither did the tone of his voice – it was a forceful, commanding tone such as I had never heard before. The part I heard was, “…cul is not pleased by this!”
My father, the other voice, replied as if to a superior, which Master Dineel wasn’t as far as I knew. “My Lord, my brother-by-marriage is expecting the boy and it would be strange to forbid him to leave now. To do so would cause talk in Dargon. So, he must go whether you will or no. I…I just could not bear to put another at risk…”
“Enough!” said Master Dineel. “We will discuss this further later, in a more private place. But know this now: we do not allow our rules to be flaunted without price. If the boy goes to Dargon, you will pay with more certainty than if he stayed. Farewell.”
I ducked out of sight as the tavern-keeper stormed out of the house. I was quite confused by the conversation. I was sure they had been talking about me, but I didn’t know in what way. I knew that sending me away was strange but why would Master Dineel threaten my father for doing it?
I entered the house prepared to question Father about it, sensing that some of the mystery of Trasath might be explained by his answer, but he was briskly cheerful to me and didn’t let me get in a word as he asked me whether I was ready to leave and telling me what it would be like living in a big city like Dargon. I knew that there was worry of some kind behind his talk for my father was not normally so effusive. I wanted to help him, make him less afraid and less unhappy, but I didn’t know how. So I listened to his stories and his advice as we waited for my Uncle to arrive.
Shortly before Uncle Lavran rode up, I asked my father, “Can I come back and be Trasath’s blacksmith when Uncle has taught me everything?” His silence went on for a long time, and finally he replied slowly and sadly, “No, son, I think you should stay in Dargon. Smith Braden’s already teaching his son his trade, so we don’t need a ‘smith here. Stay in Dargon and make a good living there – make a new life for yourself and forget Trasath altogether. Lavran’s a good man – my dad wouldn’t have let Mellide marry him if he wasn’t. Respect him, learn to love him, and let them, my sister and him, be your family from now on.”
“But why, father? Why must I leave? Why…”
“I cannot tell you – I want to, but I cannot. Just obey me and forget Trasath. It shouldn’t be hard – I’ve heard that Dargon is a fascinating place. I love you, son, I love you dearly but life will be much better for you away from here. Much better…”
Just then, we both heard hoofbeats outside and a man’s voice was hailing Father. I was introduced to Uncle Lavran, a big, hefty, jolly-seeming person who greeted me with an openness that warmed me to him imediately. The three of us together loaded Uncle’s pack mule with my few belongings. I hugged Father and said good-bye with tears in my eyes. I had taken leave of Mother earlier in the day, before going to say farewell to Keryin, and she stayed in the kitchen now to avoid a repitition of that very teary encounter. Uncle had brought an extra horse for me so I mounted up, waved one last time, and rode away from Trasath, for ever as far as I knew.
Midsummer’s day was one of the few days that Uncle let his apprentices off to enjoy themselves. It wasn’t exactly a holiday – not like either Founding Day, or the King’s Birthday, or Varhla’s Day – but there was a tradition of picnics and games on that day, especially for the younger people. I didn’t really have any plans for the day, unlike Mernath and Dersh, my fellow apprentices. They had the whole day plotted out, but I thought that they had probably gotten more pleasure out of the planning then they would out of the implementation. I thought I might visit the markets, and perhaps the docks, but I really just wanted to relax. But, once again, Leriel changed all of that.
Of the many changes in my life in the two years since leaving Trasath, Leriel had been the best. Dargon was a big city, and very strange to one who had lived his whole life among the same thirty people. But, eventually I got used to it. Working as an apprentice blacksmith was a far cry from helping out in the fields of the village, or aiding the carpenter as able in fixing a roof or adding a room. It was hard, at times nothing but drudge work, and often boringly repititious. But, I was learning a little every day and I was already able to pound out nails from rod-stock with precision. Next would be raw-shaping horseshoes – one of the most important skills a blacksmith needed.
But, Leriel was nothing like learning a new city or a new trade. Firstly, she had been totally unexpected. Uncle hadn’t told Father about the orphan he and Mellide had adopted. Leriel was very close to my age – just a month less than sixteen with four months between us. In that way, she was very like my sister. In fact, there were a lot of ways she was like Keryin – we swiftly became very fast friends. Even though Mernath and Dersh were friends, too, Leriel was the one to show me the city and teach me its ways. Which was why she dragged me out of my own boring plans for that midsummer’s day and showed me how it was supposed to be celebrated.
The entire day was intoxicating, wild and full of life, good friends having good fun together. When it began to get dark, I was dragged along to one of the alehouses mid-town where I got drunk with the rest. It was amazing that Leriel and I made it home by ourselves, but we finally crawled into our beds just after midnight.
I couldn’t have been asleep for a very long time when something awakened me. I found myself by the one window in my room before I had time to wonder why I wasn’t still trying to sleep off an increasing hangover. The part of the city where Uncle had his shop wasn’t built very high so that I had a majestic view of the sky. Almost as soon as I looked out into it, I caught sight of a large falling star arcing across the sky from north to south. Something about the way it moved and its size made me wonder if it might actually strike the earth. Stories Uncle had told surfaced – stories of sky-iron and the wondrous tools and weapons that could be fashioned with it. I briefly considered trying to find it, but realized that it would be next to impossible even if it didn’t vanish in the air like most falling stars did.
I went back to my bed and crawled back under the covers, but I couldn’t get back to sleep. The idea of the sky-iron refused to leave my thoughts and I began to imagine what kind of things I might create out of it that would be passed down into history in the tales of the Bards. My fantasies got wilder and wilder – placing my name beside that of Welan in the Tales – until finally I just had to go find that sky-iron. Something told me that I could find it if I trusted to luck and the gods. Why not, I thought. It was, after all, still Midsummer’s Night and strange things were said to happen then.
I got dressed, and silently went out to the stables. My incipient hangover was gone, as was any fuzzyness from lack of sleep. I was excited and very clear headed as I saddled up Snowfoot and walked her out of the city before mounting her. Then, we headed south into the forest that covered most of the area between Dargon and the Darst Range. It wasn’t exactly safe for a young man to ride alone into that forest, but my ‘clear’ head wasn’t being all that pragmatic about such things. All I had on my mind was the sky-iron and being famous.
By the middle of the next day, I really wanted to turn back. I was lost and hungry and sure that I would never find that stupid falling star – it had probably never even reached the ground! I could barely believe that I had actually followed my dreams out into the forest – I was 16 years old; too old for such silliness.
But each time I was about to rein Snowfoot around, something would whisper in the back of my mind ‘What if it’s just over the next rise?’ Or ‘Maybe it’s around the next bend in the path.’ And always ‘What if someone else finds it first, and claims your fame?’ So, I kept going almost against my will.
I came to the ruined chapel not long before sundown as the forest was beginning to get dark again. I didn’t see any sign of a fallen star near the place, but I decided to stay the night there anyway, and head for home the next day. I hoped that Uncle wouldn’t be too worried or too mad when I told him why I was gone for two days.
The chapel was very old and in very bad repair. It stood close to a huge tree, but even so the weather had done it severe damage. There was little left of the roof-beams, and there was a sizeable hole in one wall. Still, it was shelter of a kind and the weather was quite pleasantly warm so I didn’t really need much protection. I unsaddled Snowfoot and rubbed her down, then left her tied to a tree nearby. She immediatly settled into grazing, and I wished it were so easy to feed myself. I briefly considered trying to find some early berries, or some old nuts, but I was too tired to go scavenging in the deepening gloom. I took Snowfoot’s tack into the chapel and went about trying to make myself a place to sleep.
Leaves and the saddle made a comfortable little nest in one of the corners of the chapel’s single room. I decided against lighting a fire, and was ready to curl up in my nest and try to go to sleep even though it was very early. But again there was a whispering in my ear that said, “Explore.” So, I did.
There was just enough sunlight remaining to illuminate the small room, so I looked around. There wasn’t much to see. Any furniture it had ever held was now long gone. Any decorations on the walls (the ones remaining, at least) were long since vanished. The only ornamentation in the building was the white stone altar in the alcove at one end of the room. It had once borne carved scenes on its sides, but they were weathered away almost to nothing. Still, it was the only thing in the chapel to examine, so it went over to it. I tried to trace out the carvings on it, but the elements had done their work very well.
As I worked my way around the altar, I felt something welling up within me. I didn’t understand what it was but when I came to the back side of the altar the feeling became almost overwhelming. My hands went to a depression in the former carving and pressed down. There was a click, and the whole altar swung away from me on a corner pivot revealing a depression sunk into the floor. From somewhere within me came the knowledge that the cavity was the hiding place for the chapel’s holiest items.
In the center of the depression was a pile of ancient cloth that had once been priestly vestments. Among the shreds of fabric I could see the glint of gems that had adorned the robes, but I had no interest in them. To either side of the vestments, resting on the remains of satin pillows, were what I had been sent for. On the right side was a piece of amber the like of which I had never seen before, nor even heard tell of. It was the length of my forearm and of a pure, translucent gold of the highest grade of amber but that wasn’t its rarest feature: it was carved into a representation of a tree branch! It represented an oak limb, and showed the tree in all three phases of life from leaf bud to full fruit. The workmanship was exquisite – this was a true treasure apart from its religious signifigance.
On the opposite side of the depression lay a chalice, low and flat and made of a dull silver metal that looked like pewter but wasn’t. It was simply decorated but it had a majesty about it that matched the amber branch in some strange way. I had no idea of the signifigance of either item in whatever religion had been practiced in this chapel in the wood but from somewhere within me came another piece of knowledge – I had been drawn here to take these things away with me. They had a place in some larger plan that I would someday be a part, but further knowledge of that plan was withheld from me.
I took up the chalice and the branch and pressed the latch on the altar again, closing the cavity. I put them into my saddlebags and went to sleep dreaming mistily of Bard-tales of magic and destiny.
The next day, Snowfoot and I turned back for Dargon. About an hour and a half along the trail, Snowfoot took a wrong fork. I didn’t notice right away – I was still pre-occupied with the chalice and branch – and we followed this new trail for another half hour. About the time I realized that I didn’t recognize the trail we were on I noticed signs of a recent fire. It hadn’t burned very much – we had had a lot of rain recently – so that it was easy to find the center of the black area. And there I found the lump of sky-iron that had lured me away from my bed two nights ago.
Snowfoot somehow found her way back to Dargon. After hiding my three treasures, I ate a supper large enough for three. Uncle Lavran chewed me out for vanishing for two days, but not as hard as I had feared. In fact, his final words on the subject revealed where he thought I had been for so long – “Next time you decide to go wenching, Midsummer’s Day or not, don’t get so involved that you forget to come home!” Leriel laughed along with the rest of us at that, but she kept my secret – I didn’t tell anyone where I had been, but she alone knew for sure that I hadn’t gone ‘wenching’. My three treasures were safely hidden away, awaiting our joint destiny.
My life became strange after that Midsummer’s Day when I was 16. Being led across leagues of forest to claim three treasures was just the beginning.
The most common strangeness was the scent of roses that came to me in the most unlikely places. I soon learned that no one else could smell the roses and I stopped commenting on them, but I soon grew used to the occaisonal waft of fragrance and it came to be soothing and somehow reassuring to smell the flowers my sister loved so much.
And then there was the sourceless help I received at times. Once, I was walking home alone from a bar through the seedy part of town. It wasn’t a safe place to be after dark and alone, but I was just tipsy enough not to take the longer way around. As I approached a particularly dark alley, I smelled the roses and something urged me to turn back. As I obeyed, four mean-looking man rushed out of the alley mouth and gave chase. I was far enough away and fast enough to escape but without the warning I would have been in trouble.
Another time I was in the workshop alone, hammering out some sheet stock. It seemed (we learned later) that one of the new apprentices had been careless in stoking the forge-fire, allowing some impure charcoal to get in. I heard a sizzle, and the beginning of a loud *POP* and I found myself flying as if shoved into a wall. I was turned so that I could see a bright fan of sparks and debris fly through the space I had been in a moment before as a gaping hole was blown in the side of the forge-pit. The accident wouldn’t have killed me but I would have been badly burned. When I got my wind back, I looked around to thank the one who had pushed me only there wasn’t anyone there and there were no tracks in the sand of the floor to show where someone might have come and gone.
These and other, similar, incidents made me think I had a guardian spirit who was keeping me out of danger so I could come into my destiny. There was usually a way to explain everything that happened logically, but it was more romantic to believe in the spirit. After the first few times I was ‘miraculously saved’ in this manner I stopped telling everyone about them – my friends just kidded me about my dreams and Uncle Lavran told me to stop making up stories and get back to work. Leriel was the only one who didn’t laugh or scoff, and she became my confidant and secret-sharer.
There was one strangeness I didn’t tell her of, though. It was the most disturbing of them all and there wasn’t anything romantic about it, either. It was the dream.
There was only one dream, but I had it many times. It seemed to get worse around summer, particularly on Midsummer’s Eve. I never could remember all of it, just vague impressions of it. It involved fear and helplessness, a ring of people dancing naked, a knife, and blood. I always awoke from the dream with a pain in my chest, and when the dream was at its worst there were times I woke with blood on my chest. The blood always vanished by morning but that scared me the most. The only time the dream would come to me when I was not asleep was when I would try to bed a woman – and it was for that reason that I was yet a virgin.
Between the strangenesses, I learned enough from my Uncle to be called a blacksmith. Shortly after my 19th birthday, Uncle Lavran came to me and said, “Dyalar, I think you’ve studied enough under me. You have good hands and a strong back and I would be proud to call you my partner if you’ve a mind to stay in Dargon a while.” So I became one of five smith’s working in Uncle’s shop and I was so happy that even the dream couldn’t upset me for weeks after that.
I went to bed one night in mid-Ober thinking about my first commission – a Guildmaster friend of Uncle’s wanted a trinket to wear to King Haralan’s 36th Birthday Ball at Dargon Castle in just two weeks, and Uncle had given the project to me. It took me a long time to get to sleep for thinking what to make for Master Kethral, but as soon as I had drifted off I began to dream.
It wasn’t “the Dream” but it was strange. I dreamed I woke up, dressed, retrieved my three treasures – the sky-iron, the amber branch, and the chalice – from their place of concealment, and went out to the workshop with them. A full moon lit the large room as I stoked up the forge-fire and placed our thickest-walled melting pot over it. I placed all three of my treasures into the pot and went to the bellows to increase the forge’s heat.
As I pumped the bellows and stirred the contents of the melting pot, I began in my dream to sense the presence of someone else in the workshop with me. When the three objects were finally melted, I was directed by that presence (without words) to pick up a handy knife. Holding my arm out over the melting pot, I cut myself high on the forearm. I let myself bleed into the mixtrue, adding a fourth element to the strange alloy. When there was enough blood in the pot, the presence directed me to remove my arm and I tied a rag around the wound. After stirring the mixture some more, I tipped the melting pot into a waiting sword-form.
The strange alloy cooled rapidly, gaining a shiny, rosy golden sheen as it hardened. When it was handleable, I began to shape it from its rough-cast form into a useable weapon. While I had been tutored in weapon-making by Uncle Lavran, I had yet to have the opportunity to make a sword. However, in my dream and helped by the presence, I crafted a weapon fit for bard’s tales. It was almost as if the alloy I had created had a finished shape within it, and the hammering and shaping I did to it only helped that form to come out. My dream seemed to become even more remote as greatness was formed by my unskilled hand.
The process of forging a sword can take days or even weeks – this one formed itself in just a few hours. When it was finished I placed it in the cooling bath one last time. It seemed to glow beneath the water in the bath. I put my hand into the water to touch the sword for the first time – and as my hand hit the luke-warm water I woke up to find myself standing in the workshop reaching into the cooling bath for a rosy-gold glowing sword that lay therein. For just a moment, I thought that I could still sense that strange presence that had guided me in my dream but it was soon gone.
As I lifted the sword I had somehow created from its final cooling and stared at its beauty, a sense of what lay before me came into my mind. I saw a journey, a reconcilliation, and righting an old wrong. Lured by the mystery of it, and the sword itself, I went quietly back to my room, packed some clothes and food, and set out on a quest.