Night breathed out as the dawn breathed in, and Thornton Woods awoke to his father’s big hand shaking his shoulder.
“Time to wake up,” grunted Olson as he towered over his son’s bed. “We’ve got some chains to make today. Simple work, but tedious.”
The worn leather of the blacksmith’s vest creaked softly as Olson tightened it over his shirt, protecting his chest while allowing his muscular arms to move free. He patted his son on the back once more to hasten his waking before walking downstairs to start breakfast.
“Nnnn,” Thornton mumbled groggily in response as he rolled onto his back to rub the sleep from his dark brown eyes. He lay there staring at the ceiling, not wanting to get up, and wondering how much longer he could put it off. Eventually he managed to convince himself to sit up, knowing that his father would insist more strongly if he didn’t get moving soon.
Despite working alongside his father for nearly a decade, Thornton was still slow to get going. He could feel that the night had made a mess of his thick brown hair as he pushed it out of his face with a yawn. His strong jawline capped off what was otherwise a youthful face, light and even, with the firmness that came from years of exposure to open flame and molten steel.
Swinging his feet off the low-lying bed, Thornton trudged over to the wash bucket beside it to splash a bit of water on his face to aid the waking process. He pushed his hair back behind his ears as he looked around for his own protective vest, which he had tossed on the floor before collapsing in a fit of exhaustion. Finding it, he pulled it over his tan short-sleeved tunic and gave his reflection a final look, taming his hair before heading downstairs.
Thornton was met at the bottom by the welcome smell of roasting meat. His father was a master with fire, and food was no exception. Some of the villagers liked to say that he spent just as much time over the fire of his cook stove as he did over the fire of his forge, and it was easy to see why: Olson’s shoulders and chest looked like they were carved from solid oak, and his arms—hardened by a lifetime of swinging a hammer—were bigger around than most men’s legs.
“Have a seat,” Olson said, chewing and pointing a chicken leg over the plain wooden table. “But don’t take too long. Those chains won’t pour themselves.” Thornton pulled a chair up and helped himself to some boiled eggs.
Moments later, the large frame of Olson Woods disappeared through a door into the kitchen of a modest house that, Thornton was constantly being reminded, had been built by his grandfather. “With his own two hands,” Olson would say.
Taking a few sluggish bites out of a chicken leg, Thornton watched his father come back into the room with a plate of meat that could have easily fed four men. He sat down and gave his son a smile, still chewing, and proceeded to devour most of it.
Thornton had barely finished his first few bites by the time his father was wiping his hands off, stepping outside to begin stoking the flames and preparing the casts for the chains.
He’s always a step ahead, Thornton thought. He shook his head and kept eating, making sure to finish off what his father had left for him.
When his stomach was pleasantly full, Thornton walked out to see his father already pouring the first links into the mold.
“You’re late,” said the elder Woods. Nodding to the forge, he added, “Keep that fire going.”
Thornton walked listlessly to the flames and grabbed a shovel to add more coal to the fire; it had to be especially hot to melt the iron that would eventually become the chains. After a few heaping shovelfuls, both he and the fire woke up.
For as long as Thornton could remember, he’d been helping his father with the smithing. When he was still too small to hold a hammer, Thornton had been put to work filling buckets with water to douse whatever needed tempering. When he had outgrown that, his father let him handle the shovel to get coals from the pile and dump them into the fire. He did that for a long time and became quite good at it, some days even looking forward to working in front of the roaring flames of the furnace.
When Thornton had turned thirteen, his father finally decided that he was big enough to swing a hammer. The one he gave him had belonged to his father before him—also a black-smith, as was his father before him. It was the first day Thornton ever felt important.
It was an unusually large hammer, used in forging the heaviest of materials. Its handle was carved from straight-grained white ash, giving it a lighter appearance, and the head of the hammer—a dark black steel that stood in stark contrast to the lightness of the handle—was as solid as it had been the day it was crafted. In this sense, it was perfectly suited to be a striker’s hammer: huge, heavy, and well-balanced. Hammers like it could be found in the hands of any blacksmith’s assistant worth his salt.
But it was clear that the hammer which had found its way into Thornton's hands— passed down through generations of Woods men longer than any of them could say—was no ordinary apprentice’s hammer. One glance at the handle was enough to see that.
Carved up and down the entire length of the solid white ash were intricate figures enveloped in smooth, swirling lines that gave the illusion of smoke. The years had eroded the surface and turned the deep grooves into shallow nooks, but the design was still largely visible: on one side was a figure holding a hammer above a forge, and on the opposite side was a second figure standing beneath a pillar, looking at a shining star above him. Whenever Thornton looked at it, he felt a sense of power and a sense of pride, knowing that his father had used it when he was small. His father wasn’t sure where it came from, but he knew it had been in the family for generations.
When he’d first started using the hammer, he could hardly lift it. The first time he tried, he barely got it off the ground. But as the years passed and he grew stronger, Thornton found himself swinging it more and more easily, until it felt like it was a part of him. He would take every opportunity to use it when he worked with his father, even practicing his strikes on the anvil when there was no work to be done. He always felt powerful when his hands touched the handle, and he brought it with him wherever he went.
The smell of molten iron brought him back to reality as Olson barked orders. Thornton wasn’t sure how long they had been working; it felt like days.
Pour the cast, add to the fire, let the cast set, hammer the iron. Pour the cast, add to the fire, let the cast set, hammer the iron.
Pour, add, set, hammer. Pour.
His father was right—it was tedious. The order had called for ten five-foot chains, and they had already produced six by the time the sun peeked out from behind the trees. As they finished the last one, it was nearly midday.
“Nothing left to do now but to take these into town,” Olson said. His shaggy brown hair was damp with sweat as he wiped his hands off on his vest, moving his thick beard aside in the process.
Thornton had just finished finished cleaning off the soot from his hammer when his eyes lit up. “I’ll take them,” he said, jumping to his feet. He knew that Miera would be headed there soon, and he couldn't pass up the chance to ride with her. “Tell me where and I’ll load them up.”
His father eyed him uncertainly. The half-day’s ride into town would mean that Thornton would be on his own, away from home, for longer than normal. Even a quick delivery like this meant coming back at night or early tomorrow morning. The look on his father’s face told Thornton that he thought of that as problematic.
“I’d rather we make the trip together,” he countered. “Lusk isn’t as safe as it once was.”
Thornton frowned and patted the head of his hammer. “I know you won’t admit it, but I’m not a boy anymore. I can take care of myself.”
The big, bearded blacksmith sighed and grabbed half of the pile of chains, hoisting them over his broad shoulders and making for the wagon. “I suppose you’re right,” he said. Nodding to the rest of the chains, he added, “You can start by bringing out the rest of those, then.”
Thornton made a face his father couldn’t see and picked up what he could carry. Even after years of wielding a heavy blacksmith’s hammer, Thornton was still dwarfed by his father and could only manage to take three of the big chains at a time. With a quick second trip, the cart was full.
His father held out a small piece of parchment that had the order for the chains on it. On the reverse, hand-drawn and scrawled in black, was a map showing a path leading away from Lusk.
“Here’s where you’ll drop off the chains,” he said. He then reached into his pocket to produce a few pieces of silver, holding them up and looking at Thornton. “And this should buy you a place to sleep for the night. But I need you to be back before sunset tomorrow,” he said. “There’s more work to be done, and that striker’s hammer won’t lift itself.”
Thornton took the map and the silver, stuffing them both in his pocket with a smile. “I’ll be back before you light the forge.”
His father put a big hand on Thornton’s head and rustled it through his wild brown hair. “Just be careful. And say hello to Miera for me.” He didn’t even wait for a protest before he disappeared back inside to put another chicken on the fire.
Thornton shook his head in bewilderment and walked off down the path that connected his house to the rest of the village—a village that was wide awake and humming with life.
Looking around at the smoke billowing from chimneys as the other families prepared their food, Thornton heard the familiar sounds of children shrieking with laughter as they chased each other around the village. He waved to a few of the onlooking parents as he stopped to ex- change some hellos. After a short chat, he excused himself and found his way to a small dirt road that lay just ahead. With any luck, he could catch Miera as she finished loading her cart.
Hidden in the shade of a small thicket of trees was an unassuming house with brown shutters and a door to match. There was a small vegetable garden in the front, presently guarded by an old but sturdy-looking brown mare that was happily munching on some grass. As Thornton walked up, out from the house stepped a blonde girl wearing a white cloth dress and clutching a bunch of flowers.
“Miera!” Thornton said as he waved.
The girl looked up and shielded her eyes from the sun. When she saw Thornton, a smile spread across her lips.
For years now, Miera Mi’An had been collecting, planting, growing, and selling flowers from all over. There was hardly a spot of bare ground visible behind her house, as most of it was taken up by the rivers of blossoms that flowed through her yard. She carried an armful of deep-red roses, freshly pruned and bound for her cart, which she promptly tossed inside as she went over to meet Thornton.
“Master Woods,” she said, giving him a mock curtsy. They had been friends for years now; and, despite her thinking of him as a brother, Thornton looked at her differently than he did other girls. She was lovely, with stunning blue eyes and a laugh that came easily. Shorter than him by almost a foot, she had a tenacious spirit that rivaled that of even the largest of men.
“So here’s where you’ve been hiding,” Thornton said with a smile. He looked over the dozens of flowers seated in the back of her cart but stopped counting around twenty.
“You know very well I wasn’t hiding,” Miera protested. “I was getting ready for a trip into town.”
“Well, it just so happens I’m headed there too,” Thornton said slyly, “and could use some company.”
Miera smiled a half-smile with the left side of her mouth and looked away. “Is that so? What makes you think I’d want to go with you?”
Thornton scratched his chin. “A pretty girl like you? You need to keep an eye out for bandits. And you’re less likely to be bothered if you’ve got a strong blacksmith riding beside you.”
Miera put her hands on her hips and looked at Thornton skeptically. “Well, if you happen to see a strong blacksmith, tell him he’s welcome to join us.”
Thornton feigned laughter as Miera latched the cart onto her horse, Matilda. She walked up beside her and gently patted her nose. “Okay, Matty, time for another ride to town.” Leaning in to whisper in her ear, she said, “Maybe if we’re lucky, we’ll run into that handsome stallion Jericho.” Matilda clearly recognized the name of Thornton’s workhorse, because she stomped her back foot in excitement.
“Well, if Matty says it’s alright,” Thornton began, “I’ll meet you on the north side of the village.”
Miera smiled and said, “Suit yourself.”