July 2000
by vulcanviking (Joe White)
Copyright © 2000-2003 by Joe White

I wipe the soot from my eyes and plunge the red-hot metal into the tub. Steam rises, scalding my arm, but I set my jaw and keep working. I dare not stop.

The duke marches in the morning. Already I have made swords for all but two of his men. They did not say why they need new swords. I did not ask, because I already know. A child works the bellows, the hungry flames blaze, and I pull another bar from the fire and begin working anew.

I can feel the sweat like a second skin. My right arm is still blistered from the burns, where the fire flared high five days since. When the witch-wood flared to the rafters, like a phoenix being reborn. Two of the duke's men, who were unlucky enough to be in the way, will not march with him again.

I glance at the pile of witch-wood, and quickly wipe sweat and tears from my face. Tomorrow the duke's men march against the witches of Tiernar. I have two more swords to complete before the dawn. One is for the duke himself.

The outcome of the battle is already assured. The duke commanded me to enchant the blades to slay the traitors, and I could not disobey his command.

The wood knew. I watched Moira being tied to the stake, witch-wood kindling around her feet. I did not wait to watch her die. But the wood knew. The wood still knows, and burns hot and sure. Its magical stuff seeps into each blade, readying for the battle.

Time passes, my muscles working, the din and the heat drowning everything from my mind for a time. The work can be soothing, sometimes, but tonight it saps my energy and my will. The heat is too strong, too bright, too alive: the magic of the witch-wood sings in the air and dances through my sweat. I can already feel the vengeance that will unfurl under tomorrow's sun, and I grieve.

The duke is angry. And not just angry; furious, irrational, unthinking. It is a madness, I know, and I wish that I could plunge his madness into the water as readily as I do the red-hot metal. But he would not listen, even if I dared to speak. And so I toil, carrying out his bidding.

Would that he knew. Perhaps it would not have come to this, had he known that his ancestors had the Power as well. Had he known how it had been lost over the years, as squabbles with the priests had led his forefathers to command that no nobleman should be allowed to practice magic.

In the years since, noble children who showed signs of magical ability had been exposed in the haunted woods, and left to die. The creatures in the forest hungered for the magic, and came to feast. None of the children survived.

Or so most people believed.

The duke knew that he desired a woman, and that she did not desire him. He had tried to win her, to no avail. He had brooded, grown angry, and finally grown mad. She had cast an evil spell on him, he said. She must be punished.

The sentence was death. Burning at the stake, with a fire of witch-wood. The only thing that could kill a true witch.

The duke knew all of this, and no more.

He never knew that he once had a sister.

He never knew that a lone traveler found a child, unprotected in the woods, and took her to the witches at Tiernar for sanctuary.

He never knew who he had sentenced to death.

But the witch-wood knew. My forge rose in fury even as the duke's sentence was carried out. It seethes in quiet patience now, waiting for the morrow.

And I know as well, and I grieve. The lone traveler, now a blacksmith, was once the son of an enchanter. I make the swords and bind the magic. I serve my liege's command; I can do none else.

But tomorrow, the enchanted swords will do their work. And a betrayal will be repaid.