Chapter 35: Hammer it Out

Keenin stood beside the open-air forge, inspecting a pile of scrapped weapons and tools, as Harris hammered metal. Heat and noise filled the midmorning air from similar forges simply shaded by cloth overhung on tall poles. Behind him on the open laneway oxen pulled carts stacked with barrels of water and crates of food that he suspected may have been stolen.

“So…” Keenin started.

He paused as his words were covered by the noise of hammers.

“So!” Keenin yelled, “Can you show me some moves!”

The way his voice added to the deafening sound made him cringe.

“You want to use a hammer!” Harris yelled casually back.

“No!”

Harris lifted his hammer and with his other gloved hand used a pair of tongs to slide the heated bar into the burning forge where it radiated orange in the gathering heat.

“No. I mean to fight,” Keenin corrected more quietly. “If all I know is how to block and dodge, what can I do in a real battle?”

The unearthly glow of hot iron made him feel the absence of the fire elemental’s presence.

“What do you think of Aron’s plan?” Harris asked.

Plan, Keenin thought. More like hopeful wishes.

“I would need to hear more about it,” Keenin said instead.

“What do you think of the idea of taking a walk out of here?” Harris asked more plainly. 

“I’m not exactly hopeful.”

He definitely wouldn’t escape guilt-free.

Harris sighed. “Do you know ordinary folks call people like us Keenin?”

Harris slid out the glowing hot bar which was the makings of a sword.

Hero’s Keenin thought absently.

“The enemy,” Harris said. “When we step out into a battle with the rest of them, we will have already shown the side we support. Better to prove what side we are on before we have no choice.  Hold this.”

Harris passed him the hammer and Keenin gripped the leather-wrapped handle with both hands. Harris used tongs to move the bar of metal into a bucket of water that hissed and steamed.

“As for teaching you to attack. I wouldn’t mind if we have the same goals, but you have the wrong idea about my skill. What you lack are strength and endurance.”

“So how do I… “

Harris removed the cooled bar and placed it on a stone slab by the furnace.

“Arm strength first.”

Harris picked up a rag to wipe down the tongs which he placed on the workbench beside a pile of rags and pulled off his heavy heat-resistant gloves to wash soot and sweat from his hands.

“Your footwork and reflexes are good so you must have been a runner. A delivery boy maybe. Anyways, you need arm strength to hold your weapon and push the other back. No use protecting your balls if your head goes clean off.”

Harris tossed the rag in a pile over his work gloves and picked up the bucket of water kept beside the furnace to splash it over the coals which hissed and billowed steam like an enraged dragon. From across the space, an older man shouted angrily at Harris to not put out the bloody fire and mumbled curses in a language unknown, all of which Harris ignored to face a quietly waiting Keenin.

“What?” he addressed Keenin’s quiet response. “Never heard crude language before?”

“No.” Keenin had been thinking of how freely Harris used the army’s equipment and felt embarrassed over not taking his freedoms where he could. The older boy was heroically confident and a natural leader, so why had the gods ever wanted himself?

“You’re surprisingly good at teaching,” Keenin told him.

Harris gave Keenin an unimpressed look. He lifted up the tongs and held them out for Keenin to take along with the hammer he already held.

“Come back at the end of the day and we’ll work on some endurance with good old-fashioned hammering. As for teaching, ask somebody else. I don’t use a sword. And… I hope you didn’t forget we are here because of our magic.”

Keenin raised the hammer that he still held.

“And this?”

“On the wall.”

The boy pointed to where several tools hung from pegs on a thick pole. Keenin made slow progress through the cluttered area trying not to make eye contact after the commotion Harris had caused. He put the tongs into a bucket that was already being used for this purpose and looped the leather strap at the end of the hammer over an empty peg.

Keenin noted that one hammer had a handle molded in the figure of a woman. He had seen other spears and swords with this goddess figure. The design was more decorative which is why Keenin had assumed it was a goddess. Now he wanted to know.

“Hey, Harris,” Keenin called as he rushed to catch up. “Who is the figure carved onto those weapons?”

Harris hardly seemed to notice that Keenin was back as he leisurely strolled to their usual training area. His eyes were scanning every weapon, barrel, and armored soldier around them as though the whole thing was a puzzle that could be solved if put together the right way.

“So you noticed. She is their goddess of love, called Septose. It makes one curious about why these people started a war,” Haris said. 

*

The two of them met Aron by the door to their training area. A piece of paper had been tacked to the door. Standing guard to the side of the building was a fighter in full plate armor who gripped a battle axe. Keenin eyed the guard with suspicion, noting that the armor was slightly rusted and that the man stood perfectly still, but since his friends didn’t pay attention he focused on the note:

The leader and I shall return in a week and expect you three to be working together nicely.

“A week,” Aron muttered to himself.

He seemed to have read the notice multiple times and was only now letting the information sink in.

“Then we should go to-

At a flicker of motion, Keenin tackled Aron. They hit the ground as wood chips sprayed over them. Keenin glanced up at the ax embedded in the wooden wall above their heads and over at Harris who stood stunned as blood trickled down his face from a cut on his cheek.

The axe jerked and wood crunched as the guard tried to free the weapon. Keenin pulled a kitchen knife from his right boot and jammed it between the plates over the armored man’s metal foot, a move that would surely make a man scream. 

There was no such sound. Aron pulled Keenin up with him. Harris had taken several paces back so they formed a rough ring around what Keenin knew was an undead soldier. Keenin wished that he had carried more than a thin knife. 

Aron was the only one with a decent weapon on hand, accustomed as he was to keeping a sword at his side at all times, and he unsheathed it as the corpse guard pulled the ax free. Keenin saw the glint of metal weapons that became exposed from behind the ruined wall of the training cabin and knew what he needed to do.

“They’ve never attacked like this!” Aron shouted.

Keenin coughed up a laugh.

“I think our weapon trainer is trying to tell us something,” Keenin said with dark amusement. “Leave it to that lazy guy Rumin to set something up.” 

Though he must have been shaken, Aron held his fighting stance.   

“You think?” Aron said.

“Be a friend and handle this would you,” Keenin commented to Aron nervously.

“Hey!” Aron called out as the corpse charged in their direction and Keenin dashed forward and under the raised axe to get around.

Luckily the corpse wasn’t very smart and let Keenan pass on a single-minded mission to attack Aron straight on. A clash of metal told Keenin that his friend and so-called commander was still alive.

“Hey you ugly, no-brain, rot-face. You missed me,” Harris yelled and waved in an attempt to distract the corpse.

The first weapon Keenin could grab was a short sword spotted with rust.

“Ugh. Why is this garbage here?”

He spotted the polished spears lined up along the opposite wall and imagined that he could reach one in time, but a shattering sound made him look back. Aron held up the splintered metal stump of a sword where he had deflected another blow from the huge axe. The axe was again caught in the side of the building. The ground had become scattered with shattered metal and household objects that Harris had grabbed from the nearest tent and tossed at the attacker. Blood welled from a vertical cut near Aron’s eye and he looked lost in horror.

Keenin straightened his grip on the hilt of the rusted sword and charged at the hulking man point first. The blade punched through the armor and stuck an inch into the rotten flesh beside the dead man’s spine. The monster was hardly damaged, the blade was stuck, and Keenin’s hands were bruised from the force. This close he could smell the unnatural chemical balm that made the rotted flesh like rubber. 

The idea of someone doing this to another person was nauseating. Keenin felt like his stomach was full of mud and sweat beaded his skin. In the time it took the zombie to be aware of Keenin, a familiar feeling of death came over him; Keenin remembered yelling for Tess through the fire, watching a chandelier crush Dia to nothing, running through a field of lightning as a dragon flew ahead, and he didn’t know how to move on. He felt like he had abandoned them all. 

Keenin’s sweaty hands slipped from the hilt of the blade as the hulking man began to turn. All he ever did these days was give things up. And everything was so confusing, who to care for, and who to hate. Rumin had been wrong about his conviction.

Keenin thought that maybe the corpse would at least be satisfied with one death. Aron grabbed the sword hilt as it swung in his direction and struggled to pull it free as it caught in the jagged metal of the armor.

“Keenin don’t let go of your damn weapon. What did I tell you!” Aron screamed at him.

Harris joined beside Aron to pull at the sword as the corpse raised the ax again. Keenin thought it would be nice if he could end the war if he was going to die anyways. The people back home deserved that. And yet…the death god said not a whisper as Keenin closed his eyes. And after a dark minute when the air grew chilled Keenin thought that was all there was to death.

“Keenin,” Harris said plainly. “Keenin open your eyes.”

When Keenin blinked his eyes open what he saw made him think of Clide. The ax and the corpse holding it were frozen solid, stopped in a downward swing over him. A woman in a modest charcoal grey dress stood beside it, the fingers of her olive-toned left hand still in contact with the frozen armor.

Dangling from straps held in her other clenched hand were three swords in tooled leather scabbards. She must have wandered over in the midst of their struggle. Harris watched her in wonder while Aron still had his hand on the sword lodged in the corpse’s back. The three swords that the women held clattered to the ground as she released them. Keenin felt very much like those swords, thoughts scattered and body bruised. He regretted feeling weak.

“Take a sword and practice harder,” the woman said. “I don’t have time to teach magic to anyone so unmotivated.”

Aron swallowed. “Where’s Rumin?” he asked.

“Away,” she said simply. “Do yourselves a favor and learn something before he gets back. If it wasn’t for some ice dragon joining the battle against us I wouldn’t be back here.”

Clide, Keenin thought wistfully of his dragon friend, they don’t deserve you.

*

Aron stood beside their barracks calmly reviewing the basics of how to hold a sword. Keenin sat on the ground watching numbly. Harris held the shaft of a spear as though to mimic the sword, the pole shaking slightly with his tight nerves. Aron didn’t mention to take the lesson more seriously and had already repeated some of the steps as though to convince himself he still knew what he was doing.

Keenin sat on the sparse grassy ground, worn thin by the treading feet of soldiers. The ground was safe. It was familiar, the same dusty smell, the same background chatter of people. His new sword in its moss-green scabbard was on the ground in from of him and his eyes wandered over the soft pattern of curling leaves. He reached for the sword hilt and pulled it forward, half dragging it angled from the sheath. He examined the wave in the metal and the reflection. 

Then he stood, lazily pulling the bare blade, dandling it point down as he left the sheath on the ground. He moved away from their small cabin and through the camp where the men and women were preparing for the night: pulling down laundry, dowsing fires, and packing away supplies. 

Keenin was stopped by a man with an unbuckled strap on his breastplate who dragged a barrel through the dirt towards his tent. 

“Are you busy?” Keenin called to him.

The man looked at him oddly, more so because Keenin was speaking to him than because he was foreign. Everyone knew about Iscara’s kidnaped magic users. Keenin held out the bare sword.

“Can you teach me?” he asked the man.

“Can you hold that up properly?” the man asked in return.

Keenin smiled, because it was the response he had hoped for, and he thought of Alaban.

The man reached for a tent pole lying next to him on the ground and held it out.

“If you work on that. We will work on this,” the man told him. “I want to see you hold it properly.”

Keenin did too. He would be a young man that a parent would be proud of. One that came home.

 

 

Chapter 34: I’m Not Afraid of Ghosts

Chapter 36: A Thought in Flight