Before the cockerel’s dawn call, Adeen counted ten blind steps, found the gate post with an outstretched hand, and turned right onto the high road where the crunch of snow greeted her boots. Her toes curled against the cold, and she distracted herself by wondering what news she would have for her family when she returned, her apprenticeship complete. Many of the masters provided a parting gift for their boys and being the village’s only female apprentice in living memory, Adeen found herself in an unusual rush this morning.
The stars surrounding her parted dutifully and the stinging numbness in her clenched feet became eternal, celestial stuff. Not the weary trudge of Winter. A cow bellowed far below her. Adeen could smell the black smoke of the forge on the ether. Emerging in a thick pall of smoke, she considered skipping, then picked up a brisk walk as the black road cut shoulders through the snow ahead.
Soon enough, the guiding light of the forge announced a large cart and two hobbled horses beneath the sign for “Edgar Harris--Blacksmith”. Adeen stopped and caught her breath. Her face split from the effort.
The larger horse’s nose was cold to the touch, and jerked away as Mathan’s voice reverberated behind her, "Morning, princess. Go and get the old man!" Without turning, Adeen pulled her coat tightly around her shoulders, dodged the startled horses and thumped down the steps to the rear of the forge. Mathan was never big on greetings, especially when it came to apprentices. Right on cue, Edgar Harris emerged from the tangle of grasses and shrubs that he optimistically called his “garden”. Beyond that, somewhere in the gloom an aged oak framed the end of Harris’ lot.
"Mornin’, lass. Big day?" Adeen felt the full weight of Master Harris’ blue eyes boring through her, even as dawn struggled to announce itself. The old man wore a simple shirt rolled to the sleeves and Adeen shivered in the cold just looking at him.
"Yes, Sir. I noticed the horse and cart …"
"Yes. We’re delivering the order to the Fathers. Go and help Mathan load the cart. Find a place for yourself."
Adeen blinked and hurried back up the path. The Fathers? That was miles! A day of firsts, her Mama would say. She placed one boot on the cart’s wheel and sprang up into the back then wedged herself into a corner between hessian sacks. The grey horse sat calmly under Master Harris. Mathan’s horse, the chestnut, seemed to sag under his big frame. Adeen wondered if they’d thought of swapping horses.
They rose out of the smoky valley with the sun, and Adeen blinked at the unfamiliar trees that rose tall and orderly some way back from the road. Mercifully, the day slowly warmed. Adeen drew a newly made sword from a large pouch and held it silently.
"What do you think?" Harris called over his shoulder.
She glanced up, but Harris hadn’t turned. Adeen stared at the sword before her. "It’s lighter than most. It feels … good in the hand. Balanced, like."
"That’s the word I was looking for. That sword is also stronger than most. Why?"
This felt like a final test. "The steel is more heated. Needs less folding."
"Good lass." Harris turned and winked.
Adeen grinned to herself as the two riders exchanged an unspoken nod. The new sun warmed her face as the cart continued its rattling.
At the crossroad, the horses were pointed towards the sun. The track soon narrowed, the tall trees swallowed the sky and Adeen felt herself shivering, even in her coat. She jerked her head left. Something had moved, she was sure of it. The cart continued to roll, slowly.
Adeen’s fingers circled slowly around the sword’s hilt. Out of nowhere a bell tolled, and Adeen felt her body shudder at the nearness of the heavy sound. Birds split the air, diving in every direction as the cart halted.
Mathan dismounted and began to disconnect the dray from the cart horses. From where he sat, Edgar made a sign with his left hand above his sword, then swung sideways and dismounted, and only then was Adeen aware of the dozens of grey-cloaked men approaching the cart from all angles.
"You’d better get out of there lass, unless you’re staying with me." Mathan winked and continued to remove leather straps and the heavy linchpin. Adeen shoved the sword back into the pile and scrambled out of the cart, finding herself surrounded by a wall of grey cloaks, and above them stern faces. She hurried around the cart, hoping to busy herself.
"What do you mean, stay…"
"Hold the horses," Mathan barked, filling Adeen’s hands with reins. "Take them over there for a quiet feed." He gestured to the track’s margins where long grass sprang up. Adeen gripped the reins tightly, her legs heavy beneath her and fought a strong urge to pee. She would be glad to return to the forge.
The horses’ eagerness to graze helped her put a comforting distance between them and the men. So, these are the Fathers? A day of firsts, Mama. Adeen tied the reins to a nearby tree and sought to shut out the many conversations that seemed intent on reaching her ears. She dodged around a wide tree trunk, peered back momentarily, then deftly squatted. She arranged her undergarments with one hand, and steadied herself against the tree with the other, then clenched every available muscle in order to get the business over with quickly. A tell-tale cloud of fragrant steam rose through her legs. Adeen flew upright and retrieved the horses, then led them to the other side of the road at a leisurely pace, her heart racing. The horses followed dutifully and busied themselves in the fresh grass. She didn’t dare look back at the men.
After a few more minutes, Edgar’s approaching boots snapped her to attention. "Better now?" he smiled.
Adeen felt the blood rush to her face, muttered a quiet, "Yes sir," to her boots as Harris gently took one set of reins.
"You ride Duinne."
Edgar mounted easily as Adeen negotiated the stirrup and finally swung herself into the saddle. They rode past Mathan who waved, his eyes seeming to linger on them as if to take them in one last time. Before Adeen could ask, Edgar replied, "He has business here now," and the answer invited no further queries. Behind them, men pulled the cart away from the narrow road.
The blackness of the forest parted around them, defying Adeen’s efforts to look over her shoulder. The way was swallowed up and sealed from them as they moved, the unhurried clopping of horses on the trail muted by the forest until they rode again into sunlight.
Adeen followed Edgar until the bells finally ceased to exist. "Follow," he called over his shoulder. "We’re taking the long road. I want to show you something."
Adeen guided the brown horse through the crossroads behind Edgar as he struck out on a new path that narrowed and soon disappeared beneath wild grass. The country, long and green, rolled quietly beneath them as the light softened into mid-afternoon. Edgar pointed to a line of fallen trees where saplings bent around boulders.
"Look at that fold of land. Like a puckered wound." Harris’ bent finger pointed out the long ridge to the left that wound through the clumpy fields. "Many years ago, this was a stream. Not a big one, but a stream, nonetheless. You can see where willows used to draw the waters, between the long grasses there."
Adeen drew her horse level as Harris continued. "One of the Mothers, the ancient people of this land used to cast gems into the stream, right at this point." He nodded to the fold beside them.
Adeen frowned. "Why would anyone do that?"
Harris turned and stared at her as if it was common sense. "To attract the salmon." He urged his horse forward through the grass.
Adeen followed quietly as Harris’ mount swished its tail pendulously, tallying the awkward silence.
"Master Harris. What happened to the river? I’ve not heard of a river through any parts this close to the village."
Harris turned his attention to Adeen brightly. "The Fathers, Adeen. They found the gems … riches, you see? They quarried the river until it choked and for a handful of gems, the fish, the trees, the river died. And look around, what do you see?"
Adeen stared at the tangled grass, decaying logs, stones. "Nothing sir."
"The forests here are planted, Adeen. Did you see? All arranged like a grid. Everything in order. Easily counted." He shook his head. "The way of the land is the way of the Mothers, Adeen. We have lost their spirit. This ‘nothing’ you see all around you was my village until the river died." He looked away. "The woman in the river was my mother."
Suddenly Edgar’s eyes came alive. "You see this?" He offered the hilt of his sword, an intricate design of three white spirals. "The triskele: life, death, rebirth." He slid the sword back fully. "Those men use this land for their own desires, use the people in our village for their desires." He squinted out across the fields. "The Fathers." Harris sniffed the air and scowled. "Now this is their world." He pointed at the ragged slope. "This is their song."
Edgar managed an apologetic smile as the wind began to whip around them. "Come, we’d better get back."
They rode silently for some time, the light ceding to evening. Adeen was relieved when they re-joined the main road. As the long day waned, Adeen sensed the end of things. Ahead, her master appeared to sag in the saddle as an old man might, or was she seeing him now as he was? Adeen felt the world grow smaller.
Adeen noticed the red tongue as it licked suddenly through the descending fog ahead. Harris barely stirred in his saddle. "Sir! What is that?"
They stopped the horses in a swirl of choking white and grey mist. She could see that the forge and the outbuildings had been destroyed. Adeen bolted Duinne forward, dismounted and ran to the broken forge which lay cleft open to the night, its belly bleeding the last of its contents steaming and belching into a freezing sky. Adeen could see that Edgar’s garden, almost everything, had burned; only the distant oak tree remained, lit red from the violence beyond.
Edgar pressed the horses’ reins into her hand and forced her fingers closed around them. In her free hand, he placed the sword, the triskele pressing into Adeen’s palm. Leaning in, the old man whispered, "Mathan is building a new forge for the Fathers, Adeen. Your apprenticeship is served, but Mathan has agreed to take you on." Edgar’s eyes shone brightly through the haze as he added, "If that is your desire." Edgar smiled. "We each choose our song, Adeen." He released her hands and regarded her. "Choose carefully, hm?"
Adeen blinked as Edgar turned and walked through the burned garden towards the oak, the ticking of cooling stones punctuating the circling darkness.
She hitched the reins of both horses together and ran after Edgar. Rounding the bottom edge of the garden, she stopped in her tracks.
Harris stood straining in the red light; knuckles pressed against the wide trunk. Slowly, the tree parted, and Edgar began to fade as the old man’s hands, then arms slowly merged into the trunk. The ground trembled and without another mortal word, Edgar Harris disappeared into the oak.
Dragging the sword, Adeen bolted up through the blackened garden. She stopped and took a final glimpse at the oak which returned her stare. Mounting Duinne and leading the spare horse, she ploughed back into the stars and wondered what on earth she was going to tell her family.