|Photo credit: Frederic Bisson via Flickr CC2.0|
[Originally published December 18, 2014: It’s been quite a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s awesome writing challenges. One of them even produced the final three pages to my third novel, Whiskey and Rue. The randomized titles are among my favorite challenges, and when the d20 gave me “The Oathkeeper’s Forge,” it felt epic. Could’ve been 150,000 words instead of 1,500!]
The sounds of the forge comforted Mattias. He couldn’t remember a time when it didn’t feel like home. His parents laughed and said he was born of it. Now grizzled and beset with a raspy voice from decades of breathing coal dust, Mattias demonstrated his best techniques to his apprentice.
“Why are we here at midnight?” Sylvi asked.
“The oathkeeper’s work is done at night.”
“But you work during the day all the time.”
“That’s regular blacksmith work. This is oathkeeper’s work. Don’t they teach history in schools anymore?” Mattias sighed and drew his gloved hand across his sweating brow. “Yours is a lost generation.”
Sylvi kicked at the loose dirt around the stonework wall of the forge. “Guess I don’t listen very well.”
Mattias smirked. “You’re an oathkeeper’s apprentice. If you don’t know our traditions, then how can you be expected to carry out our laws? I ought to send you back to your family.”
Her head snapped up and she started at him with wide eyes. “I was just kidding. The oathkeeper works at midnight because the Pact of the Four Moons was signed then. ‘The oathkeepers shall protect the land and its people, as guided by the gods and their sentinels on Arúon. They are the king’s guard and chosen among the best warriors in Gallixia—may it rule as long as the Jynghast Mountains that embrace it stand.’”
Mattias nodded, placated for the moment. “You’re not a total loss. I guess I don’t have to send you back just yet. Diligence, my girl. Without it, the oathkeepers are weak. It counts for far more than physical strength. Mind that before I cast you out.”
Sylvi’s jaw dropped. She clutched the hammer with both hands and said nothing.
The upturned curl of a smile and glimmer in his eye belied the threat. He winked.
Sylvi sighed and loosened her grip on the hammer. The high arch at the forge’s entrance revealed a clear night sky. A dragon with crimson wings flew from the open plains to the east toward the mountains. “If forging this sword is a secret, then why are we out here in the open? Won’t people see? Isn’t there a secret forge for oathkeeper’s work?”
Mattias shook his head. “The king ordered us to war.” The word king was said with bitter venom. “We work day and night—so the story goes. Now see here, my fine apprentice. Temper the blade so near the hilt. What we do at this stage is critical—temper it too much, and the blade will be brittle and we may as well be charged with murder when the sword falls apart, leaving our warriors surprised and open to attack.”
Sylvi bit her lip. A troubled thought fluttered in her mind. She was grateful for the spray of fiery sparks to conceal her expression as Mattias plunged a massive awl into the coals.
She stared at the blade. Her mentor forged it with such grace and skill; the same hands would wield it for one purpose and one purpose only. The Oathkeeper’s Paradox—when protecting the land and its people meant assassinating the king.
The steel glowed hot. Ash swirled within tendrils of smoke as Mattias turned the blade over the coals. “Almost ready,” he said. “Prepare the cool down.”
Sylvi dropped the hammer she’d been fidgeting with and moved to pour the water in the trough. She murmured a prayer to Setakir, the sentinel of fire, as Mattias lowered the sword into the water.
Mattias peered at her through the billowing clouds of steam. “What’s the matter?”
Sylvi shrugged. “Isn’t there another way?”
“To do what?”
She struggled to say the words. “To…change who is in power.”
Mattias scowled through the dissipating steam. “You can’t be serious.”
“What if it leads to civil war?”
“We plan for everything. This is not a situation we take lightly. You kids. Always thinking we elders are too daft to do anything. The oathkeepers have existed for more than eight centuries. In that time, we’ve forged twelve blades for the Oathkeeper’s Paradox. Each sword only used once. Each one hangs in the chantry behind this forge, and as each one was placed on the wall behind the altar, we prayed another wouldn’t have to be forged.” Mattias grabbed the hilt and turned the blade over in the water.
“He’s not even our real king,” Sylvi said, pulling her honey-colored hair out of a ponytail to redo it. Her hair was damp with sweat. The ponytail redone, she wiped her hands on her leather apron. “Does he even deserve the respect of our traditions at all?”
“You mean why can’t we just execute him like he was a common criminal?”
Sylvi shrugged again.
Mattias pulled the sword out of the trough and rested it on the workbench. “Respect for the order of succession. True, Vrenkai is not from Gallixia, but King Domarr passed succession onto his father before he died. Domarr welcomed Varus as an ally and wanted Gallixia to have the protection of the new empire. Varus was an admirable ruler and he became as Gallixian as you or I. Everyone accepted him, and we were honored to bury him with full honors as befits one of our own kings when he died. Terrible tragedy that. His son isn’t worthy to lick his boots. Vrenkai is greedy and cruel. Like some gods-forsaken evil emperor in a tale told to children. As much as the new empire could have helped us when Varus was alive, it’s time to shed ourselves of its influence and return Gallixia to its old ways. As far as the Oathkeeper’s Paradox is concerned, this is one blade with a unique story. To kill a ruler from another land.”
“Why not have one of the dragons eat him?” Sylvi said.
“They don’t want to be involved in this. Besides,” he said with a wink, “Vrenkai’s blood is so filled with hatred it’s turned to poison. Don’t want to harm one of the dragons, do we? They have better things to do anyway—like watch the eastern border for enemies. We’re at a vulnerable time with broken leadership. Now please fetch the cleaning kit, will you?”
Sylvia crossed the room and grabbed the cleaning kit from the toolbench. The cool air in the shadows felt strange after being so close to the forge. She took a moment to breathe, taking in the meticulous organization of blacksmithing tools—awls ordered by size, and fittings separated by type in earthenware jars.
When she turned around, she paused. What she saw was too shocking to make sense. Mattias stood, arms out and bending back and an unnatural angle. A red stain spread over the front of his shirt, the tip of a broadsword emerged through his ribcage near his heart. Behind him stood Vrenkai.
He leaned in to talk close to Mattias’s ear. “You didn’t think I’d find out about your traitorous cult, did you? I’m going to behead you with your oathkeeper’s blade and display your skull at the city gate. This is the end to your cult.”
Red bubbles issues from Mattias’s mouth. His hand twitched as if to point to Sylvi. Their eyes locked.
She couldn’t let Vrenkai have the sword.
Eventually—she would. When she plunged it into his heart.
There was no time for that now. The emperor’s guards rushed into the room.
Sylvi sprinted out from the shadows. A prayer to the sentinel of the air increased her speed. She leapt up to the workbench by the forge and grabbed the oathkeeper’s sword.
Vrenaki struggled to shove Mattias’s body away as he tried to release the sword from it.
“Get her!” he shouted, and the guards gave chase as Sylvi’s own heart pounded.
She ran down the street. Cutting into an alley, she crouched behind a stack of empty mead barrels and removed some twine from her toolbelt, then the belt itself. She secured the sword to the belt, then looped the belt over her shoulder and across her torso. Jumping from behind the barrels, she climbed the trellis up to the roof of the meadery.
The emperor’s guards ran through the streets, sounding the alarm for the city guards to join them.
Sylvi clambered over the rooftops, grateful that the buildings were in the business distract and closed for the night. She made her way to an abandoned building and stared. No—they’ll rip every abandoned place apart to the last splinter looking for me. I have to leave the city.
She huddled in an alcove under a chimney on a nearby roof. After an hour or so, let them fan out, then I’ll find my way out. Maybe I can ride in an empty mead barrel in a cart going out to Ironwell Falls.
It was going to be a long night. She gazed up at the four moons—the domains of the gods—and affirmed an oath to keep of her own.