Story 6 of Tales of The Wandering Blacksmith
by Vaughan W. Smith
Vincent shifted the pack on his shoulder, letting go a deep sigh. Finally the walls of Valrytir were before him.
It’s been a long and strange trip, but here I am. Will this be the place I can finally settle down?
Vincent allowed himself to be integrated into the surge of people heading through the gates. As he expected there were lots of guards, both patrolling the road and manning the city entry. But the grim expressions on their faces surprised him. Vincent noticed a tug on his arm.
“Don’t mind them, they’re just keeping us safe.” A kindly old woman gave him an apologetic smile.
“Are things bad here?” Vincent asked, slowing his pace to walk alongside her.
“Oh, they’re always bad. You don’t have the look of someone who’s lived through this.”
“I’ve been travelling a long time, originally from Avaria,” Vincent explained. The old woman closed her eyes and nodded.
“Of course, you’ve been far from the conflict. An amazing thing that wizard did. If only he could have done it here, where things are the worst.” The old woman slowly shook her head ruefully. Vincent swallowed hard. He hadn’t expected another reminder, but there it was.
“Has it always been like this? Frequent attacks?” he asked.
“Oh, not quite. Around twenty to thirty years ago it became a lot worse. Those Shades started to emerge, and all of those foul things seemed to be everywhere.”
“I must admit, I’ve never lived somewhere so steeped in it. The Blight has always been something on the edges, an occasional problem.”
“You’ll be accustomed soon enough, I’m afraid.” The woman walked on in silence for a few moments before looking up at Vincent. “I’m sorry, I really didn’t give you a good welcome did I? What brings you to our fair city?”
“I’m not entirely sure. I was looking for a long journey…”
“And this place seemed far enough away? It’s more common than you think.” The old woman looked him over quickly. “A blacksmith are you?”
“Plenty of work here for you then. Blacksmiths are well treated here, even if they aren’t as revered as Brangtur. But, the ones that keep us safe require weapons and armour. We demand the best of the smiths.”
“That’s good to know.”
“Make sure you look up the weaponsmiths. Any who work with them are highly sought the world over. If you’ve got the gift…” The old woman trailed off and focused on the road again.
“Thank you for your wise words, and your welcome.” Vincent said. The old woman barked a laugh.
“I’m just a nosy old woman not minding her business. But it’s kind of you to say so.” Vincent didn’t know what to say to that. Seeing his expression she laughed even harder.
“Oh you’re a good sort.” The old woman started to walk a bit faster, more purpose in her steps. Soon enough they reached the guards manning the gates themselves.
“Good morning Maurice. I’ve finally found some help.” The old woman gestured to Vincent.
“Good for you. Try and keep this one alive right Glendel?” Maurice laughed. Glendel grinned and pulled Vincent through the checkpoint.
“What was that?” Vincent said once they were out of earshot of the guards.
“Young wanderer like you? You’ll invite questions. Even as a blacksmith. You can thank me by escorting me to my house.”
“Lead the way.” Vincent gestured forward and after Glendel started off he quickly sped up to be walking alongside her.
“You do have a name don’t you?” she said.
“Vincent. A pleasure to meet you…Glendel?”
“Yes, that’s me. Ol’ Glendel.”
“Thank you again, for your help.”
“It’s no trouble. Some amusement for an old woman. It’s in dire need, my days are incredibly dull.” Glendel pushed on, expertly weaving through the throngs of people. Vincent didn’t get a good look at where they were going, but he didn’t mind. There was plenty of time to explore the city at length.
Soon enough they diverted from the main road, and started down an alley.
Wait. What’s this?
Vincent started to look around suspiciously. There were many people around, but none of them were behaving strangely. But the scene just evoked reminders of that encounter of Altarbright, where that thief had robbed him.
“Don’t be alarmed, this is a natural shortcut. Trust me.” Glendel spoke simply and didn’t turn to look at Vincent, continuing on her path. They turned at the next intersection and she promptly stopped in front of a tiny stone house. It was quite narrow and was squeezed in amongst five others in a block.
“This is home.”
“Looks like a nice place,” Vincent offered.
“No it doesn’t, but I’ve got a tiny patch of grass out back. That keeps me sane until the next time I go for a wander.” Glendel looked Vincent squarely in the eyes, but said nothing.
“I suppose I should go find those weaponsmiths then. Thank you for the advice and assistance.” Vincent bowed. Glendel scoffed.
“I see my husband in you,” Glendel said softly. “He was a kind hearted man, and it was his dream to join the weaponsmiths. But their life was too harsh, and I was with child. He gave it up.”
“Don’t be, it was the right choice for us. He lived a good long life. But maybe it’s the right choice for you?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I’ll find out.”
“That you will. Off you go.” Glendel shooed him away and opened the gate and started off the path to her house. Vincent waved and turned to leave.
He wandered through the city, getting a sense for it. The scope and majesty of it were breathtaking. Now that he wasn’t distracted by Glendel, he could really get a sense of the place. It bustled and hustled, but there was still a magnificence about it. The large stone walls were well maintained and stately, the houses themselves looked ancient and well established. Like they had always been there.
Without too much trouble he followed his nose to the trades district. He familiar smells of leather, metalworking, and more wafted over. He noticed more stacks of smoke threading up into the sky from the buildings in this area. His kind of place.
I wonder where these weaponsmiths are.
Vincent took his time, stopping at shops and browsing their wares. He didn’t really have money to spend, but he wanted to see what was available. Build a sense of the quality and availability. And the stores didn’t disappoint. There wasn’t the same breadth of goods that passed through Altarbright, but the quality was on the whole better.
At the back of the area, he found a special building tucked away. There was no sign, but above the entry were two crossed swords. They were real and looked spectacular.
Who can afford to leave swords like that as a sign?
The rest of the building was smooth stone and featureless. But it looked a lot bigger than he expected. Vincent stepped onto the square landing and pushed against the wooden door. It started to move and he entered the building.
Distant banging reached his ears, but the room he was in held his attention. It was full of wooden panels, with a series of swords hanging up on one wall. Two men were locked in battle, though neither made a move. They stared at each other, each one holding a sword in a difference pose. One had his sword down by his side, the other using a high stance. Vincent said nothing, merely observing the spectacle. The men remained motionless for a whole minute. Eventually the man wielding the sword in a high style relaxed and bowed.
“Good battle. I thought I had you there, but you outwitted me again.”
“Next time Mason, next time.” The other man grinned and sheathed his sword. They came together and shook hands, then embraced. A round of applause exploded from the room, and Vincent noticed a large group just beyond who had been observing.
“It seems we have a newcomer. How can I help you?” The man walked closer. He was oddly dressed. He looked to be weapon a blacksmith apron over everyday clothes, but had none of the other protective gear you would normally expect.
“I’m Sylas, and that’s Mason. And you are?” Sylas held out his hand.
“Vincent. I’m a blacksmith.” Vincent shook Sylas’ hand, surprised by the strength of the other man’s grip. It wasn’t a clumsy vice either, it was just strong.
“Ahh, welcome. What brings you here?”
“I just arrived in Valrytir, and a woman mentioned the weaponsmiths were worth a visit. Am I in the right place?”
“That would be us. What brings you here?”
“I want to learn,” Vincent said simply. Sylas chuckled and Mason let out a deep hearty laugh.
“Oh really? What a surprise. What do you think those lads are after?” Sylas jerked his thumb back at the crowd squeezed into the adjoining room.
“They’re here to watch?” Vincent offered. That sent the two weaponsmiths into another fit of laughter.
“Lad, we get a lot of prospective students turning up. We can’t train them all. Why you?” Sylas stared directly a Vincent, a questioning look on his face.
“I’m not like the others,” Vincent offered. It was a weak answer, but it’s all he could come up with in the moment.
“That remains to be seen. Go join them,” Mason said. Vincent nodded and rushed over to join the crowd in the adjoining room.
“Lock the door Sylas, I don’t want any more last minute additions,” Mason said. Sylas walked over and locked the massive door, the sound of the lock echoing through the space.
“This is a two part test. For those of you who don’t know us that well….” Mason paused and let his eyes linger on Vincent, “We are sword masters through and through. Yes, we make all types of weapons. But we are masters of the sword. We build them, we use them, we refine them based on how they are used.”
“For that reason, there will be two stages to this test. First you will have a smithing assignment. Then you will have a duel against one of us.” Sylas paused and let the words sink in. There was a wave of chatter through the group. Vincent felt his throat tighten and his stomach start to churn.
What have I gotten myself into? Is this really the right place for me?
“Any questions?” Sylas said to the room. One man raised his hand. “Yes, you down front. What’s your question?”
“What’s the smithing assignment?”
“Fair question. It’s a blacksmith’s hammer.” Sylas paused, watching the reaction. He pointed at a man in the second row. “Yes, your question?”
“Why a blacksmith’s hammer. We all have one already.”
“Why indeed?” Sylas paced around in a circle and then gestured to Mason. “Do you want to answer this?”
“No, the answer should be self-evident. Let’s crack on with the test, this is going to take a while.”
“Agreed. Everyone follow me.” Sylas led the the group through a side door into a larger facility. Vincent was dumbstruck by the size. It had a great high ceiling, with rows and rows of forges and accompanying tools.
“As you can see, we have lots of space. And we can take on multiple apprentices. But we’ll take none if we aren’t convinced. Come closer and we’ll explain the specifics.” Sylas ushered the group to come closer and Vincent tried to get near the front. He wanted to hear every detail.
The smithing assignment was relatively simple. Using the materials on hand, they were to fashion the smith’s hammer that they would be using if they were successful. Even though there were many forges, the two weaponsmiths drew up a roster to ensure every applicant had enough time to work. Even then, the time frames were pretty tight. There wasn’t time to start again if any major issues were encountered.
I can’t second guess myself here. I just have to throw myself in.
As soon as he started working, Vincent started to fall into the groove he usually found. He pushed all worries of the contest away. Even his questions of whether this was the right environment for him. He focused on the purity of the work, the wordless flow of effort that would result in the highest quality. That was all that mattered.
“Time!” Mason shouted. Vincent awoke, as if from a dream. He hefted the new hammer, sensing its weight. It felt good. Solid. Well-balanced. He glanced around, but the other hopefuls were already stuffing theirs into cloth bags. Vincent found one and did the same.
“Place all the entries here.” Mason pointed to a nearby row of tables. Vincent lined up and pushed all thoughts from his mind. The task was done. There was nothing he could do now. Whispers ahead caught his attention, and he looked over. Two men were comparing their hammers. Vincent caught a glimpse of one. It had an ornately carved handle, and flecks of gold ran up and down in an artistic pattern.
Great, my hammer will look like a toy in comparison. I’ve already failed. At least the materials were free, and I can use it myself. I’ll have to test it against my current hammer and see which is better.
Vincent saw a few other hammers, each one an item of pure beauty and perform in form. His heart sank even more, despite his attempts at trying not to think about it. Finally he reached the judging tables, placed his hammer carefully, and slunk back into the crowd. He made a point of remembering where he left it so he could come and retrieve it after the judging. Once everyone had placed their hammers, Mason and Sylas gathered next to the tables.
“Have any of you undertaken this test before?” Sylas said. Three hands shot up from the crowd. “Come over here.” Sylas beckoned them over and direct at the tables. Each of the contestants brought over their hammers. Sylas looked over at Mason and nodded.
“Good. You three can pass through to the second round.” Sylas pointed to the corner of the room. The three men walked over. They couldn’t have looked more different. One was old, his hair more white than grey. Another was young and blond, oozing strength and youth. The last one had darker skin and Vincent couldn’t guess his age, but he seemed to have an air of confidence and experience about him. There was a lot of whispered conversation amongst the other candidates, but the judges didn’t seem to notice. They methodically searched through the hammers, looking carefully at each one. They would first examine the hammer, then each would take a turn picking it up and turning it over. In some cases they would even test the heft and do mini swings.
Throughout the whole process both Mason and Sylas wore blank expressions on their faces. Vincent couldn’t tell when they were checking his, he was too far away to see. However, the pair of judges stopped looking through the hammers and were talking earnestly amongst themselves.
“We have reached a decision,” Mason said. He grabbed a bag and followed Sylas out to the middle of the room. “Only one hopeful has properly fulfilled the brief.” Mason removed the hammer and gave it to Sylas.
“A true blacksmith forged his hammer. Behold.” Sylas held the hammer up dramatically. There room filled with confused whispers and annoyed comments.
“It looks like a piece of crap,” one person said nearby.
“So unrefined. It’s raw and blocky.”
“Who in their right mind would use that piece of junk?” One man said, so loud that it rose above the rest. Sylas pointed to the man.
“You, come out here please.” Sylas waited for the orange-haired man to make his way through the crowd. The youth didn’t both to remove his look of disgust. If anything it intensified when he came closer to the hammer.
“Close your eyes and hold the hammer.” Sylas handed it to the young man. He shook his head, sighing and accepted the hammer.
“Swing it!” Mason said. The orange-haired youth shrugged his shoulders and swung hard. The hammer cut through the air in a smooth motion. The youth paused, and opened his eyes, looking at the hammer strangely.
“There, you feel it.” Sylas looked approvingly at Mason, who nodded.
“It’s…”the young man trailed off.
“Simple, isn’t it?” Mason said. He reached out and took the hammer from the young man and sent him back into the crowd.
“This was the only hammer made with care and respect. The rest of those are pretend hammers.” Mason looked around the room, pausing before he spoke again. “If any of you want to try again next year, do this. Use those hammers you made. Create something with them. And fully understand the folly of your mistake.” Mason gave them a disapproving look. There were annoyed voices, lots of head shaking. Vincent looked around and saw a few hanging their heads in shame. He was speechless.
“Words to think over. But let us move on. Would the creator of this hammer please step forward?” Sylas said. The chatter quickly stopped. After a few moments, Vincent started making his way through the crowd. He heard a few muttered comments, but couldn’t quite grasp what was said. As she stepped out Sylas cracked a wry grin and looked at Mason.
“It’s our newcomer. How interesting,” Sylas said.
“What’s your name?” Mason said.
“Vincent. I’m impressed. This is a real masterwork. The balance and weight, the care taken in the forging. Well done.” Mason held out the hammer and Vincent took it. Mason gestured to the other students waiting in the corner and Vincent walked over to join them.
“The rest of you can leave now. Go hone your skills and try again next year.” Sylas shooed them away, and the crowd swarmed around the tables of hammers and soon left. Vincent glanced back and saw that some hadn’t even taken their hammers with them.
Sylas and Mason walked over.
“Well done, you have all understood the purpose of this test, and also demonstrated a true understanding of smithing. We have one more test.” Mason looked to Sylas.
“A different type of steel is now to be tested. One by one we will push you.” Sylas pointed at Vincent. “You first.” Without waiting for a response Sylas strode away. Vincent rushed off to follow him. Sylas led him to a side door, entering another room without waiting.
It was a smaller space, the floor consisting of polished wooden floorboards. The walls were identical. There were no other adornments whatsoever.
“This is a combat challenge. We will determine your worth.” Sylas bowed after he spoke. Vincent started to speak, finding it hard to get the words out.
“I cannot fight. I lost the only fight I’ve been in.”
“I didn’t say you had to win.” Sylas carefully made his way over to one corner of the room. There was a wooden sword lying against the wall. He picked it up and returned.
“You can defend yourself with the hammer. I will come at you.”
“What should I do? What’s the aim?”
“No aim. Fight.” As the last syllable left his tongue Sylas leapt forward with a slashing strike. By pure instinct alone Vincent raised his hammer and blocked the attack. The force of the attack caused painful reverberations through the hammer and he almost dropped it. He stepped back, looking for the next attack. It suddenly came from the side, Sylas moving with remarkable speed. Vincent thrust his hammer out and moved, somehow blocking the strike. But it was little more than a feint, the real strike smashing Vincent’s other flank, knocking him down. He fell to knees, the wind knocked out of him. Gasping for breath, Vincent almost dropped his hammer.
“Fight,” Sylas commanded. Vincent drew in a few ragged breaths and pulled himself up. He readied himself as best as he could. Without warning a strike cracked across his knees, causing him to stumble again.
How is this happening? I can’t see him attack.
Vincent breathed in deep, bracing himself for a follow-up strike. There was none. He slowly picked himself up. Sylas was standing still, expressionless. The sword was at rest in his hand.
I have to end this.
Vincent lunged forward with the hammer. Sylas readied a blocking stance. Vincent tried to alter his strike and swung around at Sylas’ arm. However the weaponsmith was faster. He quickly adjusted his stance and smashed Vincent’s hands. The sharp pain forced him to drop his hammer. Another strike was coming.
I can’t win.
Vincent reached out with his hands, grasping at the incoming blade. He managed to grab it, his hands throbbing with pain. He gripped even tighter. Sylas tried to withdraw, but Vincent held fast. Sylas suddenly let go of the blade and shoved Vincent over.
Sylas was on him in a flash, his knees on Vincent’s chest.
“You passed.” Sylas was back on his feet just as swiftly with the sword in his hands. He walked back to where he had retrieved it.
“Just promise me you won’t try that with a real sword.” Vincent couldn’t help but laugh. The noise came out as ragged and strained. But he didn’t care. He just laughed and laughed.
Now we will see what happens next.
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These stories have been through only minimal editing to make them available for free online in a timely manner. Eventually they will be taken down and compiled into a book so please take this opportunity to read the story as it unfolds.