ForgedAki staggered as one of the water buckets on her shoulder bar jerked toward the ground. High-pitched laughter assaulted her ears.“Leave me be.” She glared at the little gods who grinned from within her bucket. “If I don’t get the water to the smithy before Starn’s done working the sword, I’ll feel his strap for days.”The little gods frowned and shook their heads, but at least they leapt down. In midair, they transformed into water and sank into the dirt path, leaving a muddy patch to snare the next wagon to come through.Aki groaned at how much water the gods had taken, but she couldn’t go back. She’d almost reached the outskirts where Starn practiced his craft and reluctantly taught her its secrets.“Where is that fool girl?”His voice thundered across the open land, and Aki flinched, spilling even more water.The swordsmith’s hammer clanged down on the anvil as he continued in a familiar refrain. “Lord Hanvold would never have left me shorthanded. He was young, but he knew not to strip us of our men just to fight foreign wars.”Her leather apron scraped the step and tripped her. One bucket thumped on the doorway.Across the room, Starn froze, hammer suspended in the air. His expression quickly turned to anger when he saw who made the noise. “Get your skinny legs in here and ready the cooling vat,” he commanded. “I’ll not have another sword go sour because you’re too busy spirit talking.” He grimaced, making a ward sign against the little gods.She scrambled over to the barrel.The chilled fresh water poured into the heated batch.Aki blinked steam from her eyes. She fumbled blindly for the second bucket and bumped the barrel instead.“Watch yourself. If you weren’t such a lightweight, you’d have knocked it over. You’re as much trouble as those little gods you attract. Good for nothing but making mischief. Worse than no apprentice at all.”Starn glowered and straightened the leather strap protecting his hand. “I’ve salted the solution,” he said, walking the heated blade over from the anvil. “Can’t trust the hardening to you.”He dipped his free hand into the brine to check the temperature before lowering the hot blade. The sword hissed when it pierced the surface, sending up a scent not unlike a winter stew, heavy in salt and the tang of metal.They shared a smile before Starn remembered how much he despised her for drawing the little gods. He turned away, leaving the sword to rest on the barrel’s metal edge.“You watch the cooling. I’ll start on the guard,” he said, selecting a heated iron rod from the forge.Aki chose a leather strap and wrapped it around her hand while she climbed on her stool. She turned the blade, checking that it still glowed hot and blue. If she failed, the reheated blade would be weaker.Under her breath, she hummed a spell song Starn had taught her to time the task. Learning the song marked the first step in becoming a swordsmith; the first of many she planned to take.Aki shook her head and focused on the blade. Even when humming, she still needed to pay attention.The gravel in front of the smithy crunched, and she lost her place in the song. Aki glanced at the swordsmith to see if he’d noticed her slip.He stared at the entryway.They rarely got visitors anymore. Few needed swords in a barren village with most knights already on the battlefields.The jangle of chainmail caught her attention, and Aki watched the tall, dark-haired man stride in with a sword held loosely in one hand.“Smith. I hear tell you’re the best around these parts – the only one in truth.”Starn placed the raw iron onto his anvil and moved toward the man, his shoulders curved in a deference Aki found strange even as she felt the authority this knight carried.“I’m an able swordsmith, yes.”The knight scowled and dropped his sword onto the front table.The clang when it struck echoed through the smithy, making their partially finished pieces ring.
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