From an early age, Allan
had learnt how to blend into the background. It was a useful skill, growing up
as an only child at the smithy in Cannan, often open to speculation from the
village children within their friendship groups. Now at sixteen years old, Allan
wrestled with the transition from boy to man and all the associated emotions
that came with it. Blending in enabled him to observe in relative obscurity the
alluring young woman who had just walked into the room on the arm of the King
The forge was in a small,
but well ventilated stonewalled room, tucked into the back of his father’s,
workshop. It was easy for Allan to remain concealed behind the huge black anvil
while they murmured and discussed prices with his father in the workshop.
“Your Majesty,” Jael
dipped his head in deference, “the price is no object.”
King Gereinte shook his
head with a knowing smile. “Maester Jael, you know I always pay my debts,” he
“No amount of money can
match the debt owed to you by this family, your Majesty.” To which, the King
scoffed and shuffled his feet, reminding Allan of himself when his mother
reprimanded him for some altercation or other. Allan knew the story of the
Sarlatian nobleman who came to an untimely end at the hand of the King. Before
he became king, he had sought to commission a Jael sword on the strength of the
smith’s reputation. By happy coincidence, at least for Jael and his family, the
King’s intervention saved their lives. By way of thanks, Jael had presented him
the sword, meant for the Sarlatian. Rumour had it that the sword’s Damascene
steel glowed a faint blue when the King touched its hilt.
“And so the sword always
chooses its master,” his father was wont to say whenever Mother told the story.
Since that day, the smithy at Cannan had received a steady stream of business
from royalty down to the lower levels of gentry who on reputation alone ‘just
had to have a Jael sword’. It went without saying that Allan would carry on the
tradition of skilled smithing; the magic of the craft passing from father to
The heat from the hearth
sent ripples across the room, making the girl fade in and out of focus. A
trickle of sweat ran down Allan’s forehead and he hefted the hammer, his
muscles bunching in response, then struck the sword with a precision born of
experience. The metal on metal made a satisfying ring and sparks flew to the
tune of the weapon. Each strike with the hammer chimed a different note and to
Allan’s ears, it was the sword’s very own song. The song that determined its
master. He lost himself completely in the moment; the breath-taking heat, the
background murmur, the stench of hot burning coals and the song of steel.
until he put down the hammer and returned the sword to the hearth that he
realised he had not quite managed to blend into the background as well as he
had hoped. The sense of being watched made his skin itch. He took up the
bellows as an excuse to turn his back on inquisitive eyes. He tried to
concentrate on the heat of the coals, but his interest got the better of him
and he turned. She was standing in the archway between the forge and the
workshop. Her green cloak was trimmed with ermine, quality cloth of noble cut.
Her hair wound down her shoulders in red ringlets, framing a freckled round
face with eyes that sparkled with curiosity and mischief. By his judgement, she
looked about the same age as him. He didn’t know why
she was watching him or what she wanted but only that his heart started up a
steady drum beat in response to the intensity of her gaze.
“Countess Del’oro?” A woman’s voice from the workshop.
The young woman looked
around and the King’s sister, Princess Alliane stepped into view. She was
dressed in riding attire that played down her royal status; brown leggings and
a green jerkin. She clapped her hands together in barely concealed exuberance.
“Come and see these weapons. There is sure to be one for you here.” The
Countess glanced back at Allan, a smile twitching at the corner of her mouth.
Her eyes darted towards Allan’s left hand and he turned his back enough to hide
the ugly stump of his little finger. But not before she had seen it and judged
him. She whirled around and strode back into the workshop.
Allan drew the steel from
the heat and laid it aside to normalise. It was a fine piece of work, one that
would earn the reputation of a Jael sword. Wielding a hammer had become more
difficult for his father in latter years, but Allan was proud to maintain the
legacy on his behalf.
There was a clash of
steel on steel and voices rose in alarm from the other room. Allan watched the
scene from the shadows of the forge. Princess Alliane was wielding her sword
against the Countess, who stumbled backward raising a clumsy two-handed broad
sword. The King looked on with an amused expression on his face. Allan had
often wondered at the regularity of the King’s visits to the smithy. Perhaps he
still felt there was a debt to be paid for the sword that had forged his reputation.
The King’s eyes flicked over to the forge where Allan stood. Allan willed
himself to blend into the background. But it was almost as though the King saw
beyond the apparent, his reach seeking Allan’s presence and urging him forth.
Allan sank back further into the shadows.
He still had a good view
of the Countess, who had given up on the broad sword and picked a one-handed
long sword from the display. She began to cut the air in front of her with long
slow arcs, testing the weight and feel of the weapon. She was clearly no novice
to the art of swordplay, despite her initial choice of weapon. Alliane
responded to the advancing Countess with measured caution. The cut and thrust
of the Countess’s strikes pushed the Princess back towards the forge, and every
time the Princess moved forward, the Countess leaned into the attack, further
cutting down her distance. Allan was all but ready to catch the Princess as she
came two steps away from tumbling into his space. Then she found her feet and
started to parry and hold off the Countess with just enough finesse not to lose
face in front of the King and company. The Countess was no novice indeed.
Jael was flapping his arms
on the periphery conflicted between the need for safety and interrupting this
“Ladies, your Majesty…
please. We do have a practice yard. My son, Allan, will show you a veritable
assortment of swords to choose from. Allan,” he called into the forge. Allan
stepped into view. The Countess dropped her guard and continued to swish the
blade experimentally to and fro while the Princess sheathed her own sword.
“Well,” Princess Alliane
said. “Perhaps your son might be good enough to provide the Countess with more
of a challenge.” The King was laughing.
“You give up far too
easily, Ally,” he said. “Just because a young woman took you by surprise.”
Alliane scoffed as though it meant nothing to her, to be disgraced by a girl
nearly half her age.
Allan was staring at the
Countess, who was testing the weight of the sword, transferring it from one
hand to the other.
“Not bad,” she said to no
one in particular, “but it’s still not quite right.” She spoke in Etanese, the
most widely-spread language of the Western Isles, but with a Langan accent,
native to the Southern Lands. It gave her voice a hypnotic lilt.
Silently, he chose a
selection of swords from the display, and then exited by a side door into the
yard without waiting to see if anyone followed. He strode to the far end of the
yard, kicking up a dust storm. The sun beat down with relentless heat, giving
him no respite from the sweaty oven of the forge. He set the swords down on the
wooden rack. They would soon see which design best suited the Countess and her
unique brand of swordsmanship. He wondered where she had learnt to lean into
the attack like that. It was a move not many seasoned warriors would have the
confidence to pull off and she applied it with the ease of someone born on the
battlefield. There were only two others he had ever seen fight like that: The
Queen of Carentan, Jehanna Mantar and her twin brother, the King’s Chief of
Staff, Jehan. They were renowned for their fighting skill, particularly for delivering
deathly blows from horseback.
Allan lifted the eastern
scimitar. He gripped its hilt and walked through a few patterns, slicing thin air and stirring a breeze in the still heat of midday. His
parents had insisted on his training in the art of swordsmanship. After all,
how could he hope to forge the perfect weapon without first knowing how to
wield it? The scimitar was a single-edged blade that tapered to a point with a
slight curve on the end. With such a weapon, you could apply cutting and thrusting
techniques with equally devastating effect. Perfect for fighting from a mount.
As he turned and levelled
the blade in front of his body, his eye caught movement to his left. He turned
his back to the entrance, making a play of exchanging weapons, but not before
he had seen the Countess speaking to his mother. Was it his imagination, or did
they already know each other? How he wished to be invisible. Better still, a
pesky fly, unseen to the unsuspecting human eye.
He laid the scimitar
aside and lifted the bastard sword, one that could be
used equally well as a one-handed or two-handed weapon. He suspected the
Countess was more comfortable with a one-handed sword, but it wouldn’t hurt to try all options. If she were looking for a
balance between the broad sword and the long sword, the bastard
sword could be just that. He felt its weight and wondered about the conversation
going on behind his back.
Returning the sword to the
rack, he finally lifted the third sword he had picked. The hand-and-a-half
sword. This one was a beautiful balance between the two-handed and one-handed
preference. It had a cruciform hilt that was leather coated with a cord wrap.
Its blade had a flattened diamond-section, giving it perfect precision as Allan
weighed the weapon in his grip. He felt certain he could fashion a perfect
blade for the Countess based on one of those.
“Good selection.” She peered
over his shoulder at the choice of blades. He put the sword back and turned,
finding himself face to face with those piercing azure eyes. Without a thought,
he pulled the string that kept his own hair from his face and offered it to
“You might be needing
this,” he said. Her eyes twinkled with mischief as she nodded without dropping
her gaze, then turned her back.
“Perhaps you would be so
Allan drew her curls
together into a long tail down her back and took his time to tie the string in
place. Without meaning to, he brushed a thumb across her skin at the nape of her
neck and her body shivered in response. It stirred the most curious feeling
inside him; an inexplicable sense that he had been there before. That he and
the Countess had known each other a lifetime ago, though he barely knew her at
all. He pulled the string tight and let his hands drop. The Countess turned and
“Thank you.” Then she was
once again looking at the swords, while Princess Alliane and the King strolled
into the yard, laughing at something. His mother was staring at him with that
look he knew would only mean trouble for him later on.
His father fussed around the King and the Princess, finding them stools to sit
on, but Alliane refused to be seated. She insisted on continuing with her sword
practice in preparation for the try-out of the swords for her esteemed guest.
King Gereinte looked at
him with a curious expression on his face and he waved a hand to the Princess,
beseeching her to stop her activity. Alliane came to an abrupt stop, holding
her sword hilt in the hanging guard position, point sloping down.
“What? Are we taking
training now too?” Alliane said.
“I am thinking that
perhaps the boy would indeed be better placed to put the Countess and her
swords through their paces. He will be the one, after all, to forge the final
piece.” King Gereinte was staring right at him and as if he wasn’t
overheated enough, Allan still found the capacity to blush under the King’s
Princess Alliane dropped
her guard with a deflated exhalation of breath.
“Very well,” she said,
taking up a stool next the King. He gestured towards Allan, who dipped his head
in response, wondering if that was deep enough to satisfy the kind of royal
etiquette his mother had instilled in him. He looked over to where she stood
and saw that she was smiling. At least he had got that bit right. Quashing the
desire to find any excuse to touch the Countess again, Allan watched her remove
and fold her cloak before joining him in the centre of the yard. He took up the
bastard sword and offered it to her hilt-first, then
selected the scimitar for himself.
They bowed to each other,
then he had barely straightened from his guard position when she was upon him
with the speed of a wild leopard. Fortunately, the scimitar was a beautifully
designed weapon of stealth and a flick of the wrist brought its dull edge in
line with her attack to parry the thrust of the bastard
Mother of Fire. He had
not been prepared for the strength behind her slight build. He noticed the
ripples of well-worked muscle down her arms and across her chest. His
distraction was almost his undoing as she pushed him back further with that
disarming lean. Where had she learnt such confidence? By the gods though, it
worked and Allan had a hard time parrying each thrust as she weaved forward and
back, sidestepping and moving off line, only to come
in with another deadly blow.
The scimitar was bearing
up under his experienced hand, but was not the right weapon to be pitted
against anyone in one-to-one combat on the ground. He felt it give whenever she
did that tilt with her shoulder. He tried to second-guess her moves by watching
her body, but she was practised at hiding her intent and even tricked him a few
times with her feints.
Sweat poured down his
face now, as he began to make ground and take the fight back to her. She didn’t like it and a small frown creased her brow when he
delivered an inside thrust with just a fraction of a drop, imitating her
“Enough!” King Gereinte’s
voice rang out across the yard and the Countess dropped back, withdrew and held her sword in front of her body, point down,
head bowed in deference to her opponent. “I think we get the point. This is not
a tournament after all, no need for any bloodshed.” There was amusement in the
King’s tone. Allan dropped back, bowed and replaced
his weapon on the rack. He relieved the Countess of the bastard
sword, noting her nod of approval as she handed it back to him.
“Your choice this time,
my Lady,” he said.
sure if it were the heat of the forge or the memory of the Countess that made
him so hot and bothered. After several bouts with equal exertion on both sides,
they had reached the conclusion that a made-to-measure version of the bastard sword would best serve the Countess’ needs. They had
all withdrawn to the relative comfort of the parlour to discuss particulars.
The King discussed money with Jael, while Allan discussed aesthetics with the
Countess. He measured her grip and the length of her arm while she watched,
barely taking her eyes from his face as though she were afraid of forgetting what
he looked like. It was quite unnerving and Allan avoided her gaze and continued
with the job at hand as though nothing were unusual about her attention.
“Have you always lived
here?” she said.
“No.” He continued to measure
the inside of her arm, tracing a line from her shoulder to her wrist with a
piece of tape. “I mean, I wasn’t born here if that’s what you mean, my Lady,”
he added, remembering his etiquette. A smile twitched the corner of her mouth.
“Where were you born?”
Her directness was as unnerving as her scrutiny. He looked up and smiled at
her, hoping to hide his discomfort.
“I don’t know, my Lady. I
“Your mother has taught
you the manners of a gentleman, I see. I wonder what else?” Before he had a
chance to unpick the meaning of her words, she took hold of his hand and raised
it to eye level. Embarrassed by the fact that she had chosen the hand with his
mutilated little finger, he snatched it away. She paused, watching him.
“How did you lose your
finger?” she said.
“I don’t remember. It was
a long time ago, before my parents adopted me.” His cheeks reddened.
“Where did they find you?”
“If you don’t mind me saying, my Lady… I find your questions rather
unsettling.” He often asked his mother where, why and
how, but never received a satisfactory answer.
“Does it feel awkward?”
she said, making another play for his hand.
“No.” He put his left
hand behind his back. “I have never known any different. May I continue with
the measurements?” She puffed her cheeks out with an exaggerated sigh, then
He longed to ask her
where she came from and what she was doing in Carentan in the company of the
King and where she learnt how to fight like a warrior. Her face had a
bewitching femininity and her eyes were deep pools of ocean blue.
He sensed another pair of
eyes on him and knew without looking that his mother was around somewhere.
Hidden from view, as she often was. He returned his attention to determining
the accuracy of the Countess’ grip and the length of her arm.
When the deal was done,
they agreed on a day two weeks from then for Allan to deliver the sword to the
Countess at Castle Helmstedt.
Two days before his trip
to the Castle, Allan was in the workshop, polishing the sword, when his father
and mother came in together. He knew something was going on by the way they
both stood, pretending to admire his work, idly finding chores to do around the
workshop which they both knew he had already completed. Yet he continued to run
soft strokes up and down the blade with his cloth, caressing the weapon with
the care only a Jael sword deserved.
“Be careful, lad. You’ll be polishing the steel back down to its core if you
carry on like that. A good smith knows when to stop,” his father said.
Allan sighed and put the
“Rubies or emeralds?” he
said. Jael raised his bushy white eyebrows. “For the scabbard.”
“Amethysts perhaps,” his
mother said, “to match her eyes.”
Allan thought about this
for a moment. “She has blue eyes,” he said.
“Sapphires then,” his
mother said, narrowing her own eyes. Sometimes she just saw right through him.
“I know what you’re
thinking. She is above my status, I understand that.”
“Well, there are plenty
of nice girls in the village,” Mother said, sounding rather insincere.
“And they all think I’m a
freak,” he said, waving his left hand in the air. His mother looked away with
sadness in her eyes and his father busied himself, pretending not to hear. Jael
always maintained a distance from Allan where girls were concerned, claiming
that his expertise lay in forging swords not relationships.
“There is something you
need to know, Allan.” His mother returned her gaze to him and his father
stopped what he was doing and stood with his hands behind his back, as though
on guard duty.
“Your mother is going on
a trip,” Jael said. “She has been commissioned to complete an assignment of
great importance.” Allan looked from one to the other. His father had a
resigned look on his face, his mother stoic. Allan knew something of his
mother’s past. She had once worked in the higher ranks of society, serving barons
and princes. Quite what she did, he had never managed to ascertain.
“What kind of a trip?” he
said. “Can I go too?”
“Son, you have other
business to take care of here in the forge and not least the trip you have to
deliver this sword.” Jael said. His parents exchange a guarded look.
“What about Lorcas? I’m
sure he could do with the extra work.” Lorcas was Father’s latest apprentice
from the village, who came in two days a week to help out.
Particularly when there was a commission from the garrison.
“There will be plenty of
work for both you and Lorcas, have no fear of that,” Father said. But Allan
knew he was stalling. It wasn’t even that Allan was
that desperate to go with his mother, he was just curious to know what was so
important that she had to go away on a so called ‘trip’. It was clear they were
not going to reveal any more than that.
“All right, then,” he
said. But he knew there was something they were not telling him.
He returned to the forge
to continue his work. The emotional undercurrent from his mother was hard to
unpick. Anger on the surface, though laced through with fear and a sense of
loss. What was it that she feared to lose?
He heard their voices, raised
in discussion. Then as the evening wore on, the light busy shuffles of his
parents preparing for sleep. They didn’t bother him
and he worked into the night, letting the hypnotic movement of his hands free
Later, he turned in for the
night himself, lying atop his pallet and falling into a dreamless sleep. He
awoke in the deep dark of the night, the room illuminated by a faint glow from
the forge leaking in from beneath the crack at the bottom on his door. He sat
up. That was odd. He was certain he had banked the fire, so the coals should
not still be glowing so brightly. Unless someone else was using the fire.
As silent as shadow, he
slid from the bed. The door made an audible clunk and he cringed. So much for
stealth. Opening it a crack, he peered out, but there was no sign of life. A quick
check of the workshop and forge revealed no intruders, so he turned back
towards his room. A lick of flame caught his eye and he glanced with curiosity
at the forge. There was something flat and square nestled in amongst the coals.
It looked like a notebook with a hide cover and parchment pages, which were
curling up at the corners with the heat. One corner of the book had caught a flame,
which was creeping up the front cover. Allan grabbed a pair of tongs and lifted
it out, slapping it down on the worktable to extinguish the flames. The book
smouldered and the corners turned black with soot. He shook it a few times,
then when he was sure it had cooled, flicked through the pages. He recognised
his Mother’s looping script. It was written in an old version of Etanese,
clearly not meant for the eyes of a commoner. He could speak the older
language, but had to concentrate to understand its written form. His name jumped
off the parchment in several places, so he took it to his room and stashed it
beneath his bed on the stone floor. In the morning he would make up his mind
what to do about it, as clearly its owner, his mother he presumed, had not
wanted the content to be read.