The imperials stayed for a week, while their leader and the chief argued over the payment this year. There was no way that they could pay it and be able to survive the winter at the same time. Among the adults there was a lot of speculation over what could be given in place of the food, varying from whispered rumours that the imperials were demanding women to go with them, to the hopeful eyes of young men that had not yet been involved in combat saying how they would be drafted for a time to serve the Massar by fighting in mortal combat. Solaris refused to comment on this, worried more about keeping his son out of harm’s way – better safe than sorry when it came to the imperials and the Tanoi, it was common knowledge that one of the sons of the current emperor had been abandoned to the wolves at birth, simply for having a birthmark on his left shoulder in the shape of a crown, the emperor preferring to have his older son who had been born with a defect – blemishing the Massar reputation of perfectness, remain heir to the throne. Paric however did speculate, and it was one of his many predictions which came true in the end, as on the eight day, the imperials left, taking the hunting dogs with them, and the three best horses. There was not a single person in the village that welcomed this sanction, some of the younger men so outraged that it took the chief’s specific order, to each of their faces, to prevent them from charging after the army and reclaiming the thirty dogs that had been lost. The women were much less headstrong, and saw how they could always get new dogs, and that the most important thing was surviving the winter, yet this did not make them in any less of a glum mood, oppression raining down from the skies as the storms began to set in, marking the last sight of summer and the transition into colder nights and shorter days.
As winter closed in, and Arnai’s last birthday as a child drew ever nearer, the boy spent as long as he could doing things only children are allowed to do, pestering the adults, climbing into the hay loft in the now empty stable, playing pranks on the guardsmen. Always his opposite, Gregor acted completely differently, seemingly attempting to prove to Kieran that he was ready for the responsibility which would come hand in hand with his tattoos next summer. When it got too cold to be outside, Arani confined himself to the forge again, learning more of the art of sword forgery and crafting his first dagger all by himself the evening before his birthday. The blade was about twelve inches long, the shaft extending through the hilt and emerging again as the pommel, in which Solaris mounted a small turquoise gem, before showing Arnai how to bind the handle tightly with leather, and affix a hand guard to the weapon. Arnai stayed up for as long as he could, honing the blade with a whetstone and polishing it until the edge was so sharp he could barely make it out, before being sent to bed with the promise he could continue tomorrow. Solaris watched as the boy reluctantly placed the dagger down on a workbench and skulked through the door, closing it gently behind him. Smiling to himself, he wandered over to the bellows and began feeding the fire, preparing it for work.
He kept pumping until the small flicker visible underneath the door vanished, signalling Arnai’s obedient retreat under the sheets of his cot, at which point he stopped and, running a hand through his hair, picked a lump of iron out of his ore basket and heated it in the flames until it was gave off a warm orange glow. In a single fluid movement, he pulled it out and placed it on the cast iron anvil with one hand, the other grasping a heavy metal hammer, which he used to skilfully work the metal into a flatter shape, before reinserting it into the heat to warm it back up to workable temperatures. When it was once again red hot, he pulled it out, this time starting to fold the metal over the curved anvil end, the hammer ringing out with every stroke. Under his breath, he began to hum a tune, a prayer for the protection of his son for as long as he may live, the rhythmical song of the hammer blows beating out a time, and the short pauses in which he re-heated the metal full of a flowing roar of flame and heat. He lost himself in his labour, bending and working the metal into the shape that resided within his heart, which was by now thumping out the tempo as swiftly as the hammer fell. It may have been hours or only minutes when, fully satisfied, he stopped and dropped the metal into a bucket of water, there for specifically that purpose.
Water bubbled and hissed at the contact with the warm metal, evaporating around it and rising into a brief steam cloud that wafted into the rafters, around Solaris’s blue eyed and eager face. When the metalwork had cooled sufficiently, he pulled the newly made scabbard into the air, and carried it over to the workbench to test its fit with Arnai’s dagger. The blade gleamed as it slid into its new holder, which grasped it snugly, although not so snug as to blunt the blade. It whispered as it was withdrawn and placed back down, the scabbard remaining in Solaris’s hand as he brought his polish and etching tools and sat before the fire, using the light to help remove any blemishes from the metal, as well as searching for fractures, which were quite common with folded metal. Finding nothing to cause him worry, and the metal now certainly cool to the touch, the thick gloves were tugged off and the chisel and hammer were found firmly in his hands. A tapping began as Solaris slowly began to engrave a series of swirls and symbols into the metal, thin silver circlets of metal folding up from beneath the chisel head before tumbling off of the edge and onto the floor, or being removed either by hand or blast of air from the gulley’s that were cutting into the surface. The pile of metal shavings on the floor slowly increased as Solaris worked, his mind not entirely his own, and a pair of dragon wings began to emerge, running down the length of the scabbard, touching their tips together at the bottom. Encompassed within this area Solaris’s name was written, surrounded by twists and curves that seemed alive, as if they were merely dust in a gust of wind, the same area on the other side holding Arnai’s name – a permanent reminder of the connection between father and son, which would last throughout the ages. In the space below, Solaris scratched unfamiliar markings; lines that crossed and stopped, some thin and some thick, in a pattern that was unknown to his conscious mind. Lastly, these figures were disguised by a series of swirls which connected the various runes, forming a lattice that was intricately beautiful.
The last tap of the hammer brought the chisel down onto the thick top of the scabbard, depicting an orb; light shining from it in straight rays that illuminated the top of the dragon wings with a series of crossed scratches. Still in a half trance, Solaris rose and gathered a thick leather belt from the pile that resided in the corner from old swords and daggers that had broken and needed to be smelted down. His fingers deftly fed the material through a clasp that he had forged into the scabbard, and then wove the remaining length around it, the dark leather lying over the carvings and hiding them from sight. At the completion of this action, Solaris fully awoke from this dream state, and gazed in fascination at the object lying in his hands. It was true that he had wanted to create something for his son’s birthday but this exceeded even his expectations at how skilled he could craft metal. Still not quite believing his eyes, he gently laid the scabbard down next to his son’s dagger, and turned back to the forge. For once he had nothing left to craft, which was just as well for the fire was now almost out. His old master’s voice rang in his ears ‘Don’t let the fire go out!’ and he sprang into action, feeding it with enough fuel and oxygen to last till morning, which seemed like it would be quite soon. Rubbing his eyes, he let his head droop and shuffled to the door, dousing the torch that burned across from the furnace as he passed it, and carrying the only other light that he could, a small candle, through into their shared room, where he carefully placed it atop a chest and blew it out, collapsing back onto his cot and falling into a deep sleep.
Arnai woke early, as children tend to do when it’s their birthdays, but stayed beneath the sheets awhile, pondering over the strange dream he had had last night. An old man, similar to Cormac, had stood beneath an ancient oak, trying to tell him something that he sensed was very important, and might in fact be essential to the continuation of life on earth. But he could neither properly hear nor understand the man, with his strange dialect. The deep green robes the man wore swished as he strode forwards, a pained expression on his face and his eyes widening in an expression not unlike fear as Arnai, distrusting, took a step back, and fell into a deep abyss, the brown walls rushing past him as darkness drew him into its grasp. When he reached the ground however, the fall did not stop, but instead a warmth surrounded him, overpowering all of his senses. Arnai could remember nothing of the strange imagining after that, yet his brain told him that it was not all as it seemed. He pondered for a good while before remembering what day it was and leaping out of bed in excitement, instantly regretting it as the cold air snapped at his toes and body. Hurriedly, he pulled some clothes on, including his thick socks that Meme had made for him for his birthday last year, and threw the door open, barely seeing the smithy as he ran outside towards the latrines, the cold having brought a more pressing need to his mind than presents. He wandered slowly back, breathing into the air and releasing clouds of smoke, pretending he was a mighty dragon, flying high above the clouds. This soon got to be boring after a while, and he jogged the few metres that remained into the smithy, noticing for the first time how unusually cold it was inside. The fire had burnt down, and only embers remained in the bottom of the pit.
Hopelessly, Arnai pulled upon all his knowledge to get the fire lit again, piling wood into the blackness and spreading fire dust over it all, chanting the fire spell as he did. Giving up after only a couple of attempts, he ran to find his father, almost breaking the door as he charged through it. Solaris was laid in a foetal position on his bed, almost pure white in skin colour and shivering frantically. Arnai’s already worried expression switched into one of alarm as he tried to wake the man, failing to succeed at this also. Almost in tears, he wasted no time in getting to Helena’s hut and pounding at the door. “Come quick” he gasped, the chill air hurting his throat “Father’s not waking up” Within moments Helena was at his father’s bedside, throwing blankets over him and pushing furniture aside to light a fire in the centre of the hut. Paric stood with Arnai as he watched his father slowly regain human colouring, and finally drew him away to help relight the furnace. Giving Arnai a fire steel, Paric ignored the still cooling embers and instead created a cradle of thin kindling, wood shavings making a nest in the centre. Then he pulled some black fabric from his pocket. “This is coal cloth” he explained, forming a bucket out of it in the nest to catch the sparks. “You make it by leaving heavy cloth in a metal contained over fire. It cannot burn physically but turns black instead, then when you wish to light a fire, it feels the heat of the sparks and remembers the heat of the fire in which it was created, bursting into flame.” Sure enough when Paric struck his flint and steel, the cloth did its work and a fire began to crackle in the pit. Remembering the fire dust, Arnai pulled the old man back as the wood began to catch, and the fire licked its way up the logs. As its tongue reached the white powder, it exploded into flames, setting the wood upon which it rested alight and causing a chain reaction that wound its way around all the logs, an immense blast of heat firing out at Arnai and Paric.