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Authors: Manda Scott

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical

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BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
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He eased a hand round the edge of the skin, putting his face to the gap and bracing himself for a blast of heat that never came. He was pleased with that. It was, after all, his daughter who worked his forge and he had taught her well; she knew how to build a fire, stoking it small and hot and banking the edges so that the heat turned in on itself and was not thrown out to cook the night air. Still, it was bright inside. As his eyes adjusted to the flames, he saw she had built a fire made for casting; the banked edges were higher than he made them for forging and the charcoal at the core glowed white, falling away in white ash and small puffs of smoke. A mould stood in the heart of the fire, not one of his. Breaca crouched before it with her back to him. The backwash of light from the fire caught the deep bronze of her hair and made of it molten copper, pouring down past her shoulders. When she stood up and reached for the bellows, he saw that she wore her old tunic with the burn marks already ancient on the front of it and, covering that, the apron of boiled ox-hide he had made for her the previous summer. The apron was too small for her now, he could see that. In the six months of winter, under his gaze but without his seeing, his daughter had grown to a woman. He wondered how close she was to her first bleeding and knew, suddenly, that this was why she was here. It could not have started yet, or she would be in the care of the grandmothers, but it would be soon.

The bellows sighed as she pumped. The fire cracked and roared and the mould at its centre glowed white hot. Eburovic watched his daughter lift his longest tongs, the ones that he had made himself to let him work with the hottest iron. With care, she edged them forward, past the mould to a crucible of molten metal. He had not seen her do this before. He held his breath, watching the surface of the liquid bronze, praying that he had taught her properly - that she knew the importance of keeping her hands steady. Even if she knew, he was not sure she could do it. Her left hand was still the weaker of the two. The sword wound she had taken at her mother’s death had healed poorly over the winter. The elder grandmother had spent some time on it in the dark nights of midwinter, opening the wound and probing with a newly forged silver needle until she found a fragment of bone loose inside. His daughter had sat on the bench they had laid for her, white-lipped and silent. Her green eyes had held his, still as frozen water, and he had been proud as the needle-work started that they had stayed dry. Her free hand had gripped his arm while the probing continued and he had not noticed the strength of it until later. The bruises had taken five nights to fade.

Afterwards, with poultices and care, the wound had begun to knit properly but a scar that would last a lifetime ran down the centre of her palm and a greater separation than normal showed between the first finger and the rest. More than that, the hand did not work as it used to and Breaca was not one to take incapacity lightly. She had fretted daily under the ministrations of the grandmother, trying too hard to accomplish with one hand the things she had never quite been able to do with two. When the poultice came off, she had begun work in earnest. With an aching heart, he had watched her walking the fields or the encircling rampart, flexing her fingers against a wad of old leather, biting back on the pain until it bleached the colour from her skin and brought tears to her eyes. On the one occasion when he had asked her to stop, she had rounded on him, weeping openly, and spat out that if her mother could take the pain of childbirth, she could take the lesser pain of an injured hand. At the time, he had been shocked to find her so angry. Looking back, he realized that it was the only time he had seen her weep.

In the forge, he saw her lift the crucible and then the mould to the edge of the fire. Even from the door, he could see the tremor in the last few movements. With relief, he watched her lay down the tongs and flex her fingers. She tried again and the shaking was worse. He could feel the tension growing in her spine. She shook her head crossly. He heard the hiss of her breath over the draw of the fire and the muttered curse that followed. In his mind, he saw her knock the mould at the crucial point of pouring. Molten metal flowed out across her legs, seeking out the places the apron no longer covered, making wounds that even the elder grandmother could not heal. He eased his arm through the door-flap, reaching down to lift the weight that held it, intent on going in to help. As his hand closed on the copper disc, the memory of a whispered conversation came back to him: Would she work in the dark if she wanted you? and his own reply, Then I will look. I will offer help only if she asks for it. I will do nothing to stop her.

I will do nothing to stop her. It had not been intended as an oath but words spoken in the dark to the elder grandmother were not to be discarded lightly. The gods do not look favourably on a man who breaks his word and no smith can afford to court their disfavour for the sake of it, still less one who has so recently known such loss. He withdrew his arm and let go of the door-skin, keeping only such a gap as allowed him to see. By the fire, his daughter bent her head and drew in a longer breath, letting it out slowly. With great care she put both hands to the tongs and lifted them horizontally. When it was clear that the tips were steady, she slid them forward into the fire, grasping the neck of the crucible, lifting it just high enough to broach the lip of the mould. The pour was smooth. A thin stream of liquid bronze flowed into the cavity she had made for it. Eburovic heard the hiss and sigh of the air from the side vents and the part of him that lived for his craft gave her due credit for placing them properly. The part of him that was a father stopped breathing until the crucible was empty. Then she tapped the mould three times with the hammer to knock out the air bubbles and -the danger was over. It had been done neatly and well. He breathed again.

The mould cooled slowly. The time from pouring the metal to cracking it open had always been the hardest part for her. Of his three children, Breaca was the worst for acting on impulse. Twice as a child she had reached forward too soon and had had to be taken afterwards to the elder grandmother to have the scorched flesh bound with dock leaves and fennel root to keep it from festering. Now, she stood slowly, easing the cramped muscles of her thighs, and began to tidy the tools of her working. As a man in a dream, Eburovic watched the care with which the tongs were hung back on the wall and the hammer laid in its rack by the files. His daughter, his impetuous, impatient fire-child, had never been one to care about order. Since she was old enough to come to the forge to watch him and ‘help’, he had been mentioning, quietly, that certain things lived in certain places and it would be good, perhaps, at the end of a day’s work, to put them back there. Always she had turned the great green gaze on him and grinned and promised ‘later’ and run out to play in the paddocks or to find her mother or to attend to the dozen other things that needed her urgent attention, leaving her father to put things in order. He had persuaded himself, as he did it, that with enough nagging she might one day remember what it was to hang up a hammer. He had never thought to see it done so easily.

The piece was nearly ready. She stood over it, frowning as she watched the surface of the metal, waiting for the scum on the surface to harden. The fire, unfed, grew cooler, throwing redder light and softer shadows into the corners of the forge, drawing out the autumn tones of her hair and her eyebrows, making of the rest a silhouette. In profile, she was her mother. The high, flat brow led directly to the sweep of her hair. The nose was straight and firm, balancing the strong line of her jaw and the broad set of her cheekbones. Her skin was darker than Graine’s had been. She had that from her father: the ability to darken a little in the sun, not to the bark-brown of Macha and Ban, but neither to the sun-shy red of her mother. With age, he felt, she would be grateful for that. She had his height, too. He could tell, even now, that she had taken more of that from him than either of his other children and that, when grown, she and Ban would be of a height, with Silla that little bit shorter. When she stood and reached back for his smallest hammer, he could believe, in the lines of her movement, that she was growing into her mother’s grace. Then he watched her take a breath before she tapped the mould and the curve of her smile cut his heart in two. The hammer fell, splitting the mould, giving birth to the shining metal. His daughter raised her head and looked him straight in the eye, still smiling in the way she had in his dream. ‘You can come in now,’ she said. ‘It’s finished.’

He faltered. He had never been unsure, entering his own forge. He was now. ‘How did you know I was there?’ he asked.

‘The fire told me.’ Her smile broadened. She was alive with the morning and the thing she had done. It shone from her as if she stood in full sunlight. She said, ‘The flames moved in the draught as you opened the flap. It had to be someone. When you waited I knew it was you. No-one else has the patience.’

‘You are learning it,’ he said. ‘You haven’t burned your fingers.’

‘Not yet.’ She frowned again at the piece on the workbench. ‘But it is hard and I have to think. You have it without thinking.’ She raised her head. ‘Don’t you want to see what I have made?’

‘What?’ He had believed it a secret. It had not occurred to him that he would be allowed to see it. ‘Yes. Of course.’

It lay on his workbench, scorching wood already blackened by a hundred other new-cast pieces. He waited while she took the small hand-tongs and dipped it in the quenching bucket. The hiss of steam was one of the keynotes of his life. He closed his eyes and let the sound of it calm him. When he opened them again, Breaca had laid her work out on the bench and was standing by the forging block, waiting for his opinion. With some reluctance, he took his gaze from her face and directed it to his bench and the thing she had made.

Like the best pieces, it was deceptively simple. At first glance, it was a small spearhead, the length of his middle finger, with a long leaf-shaped blade and a point as sharp as any got from casting. It was a thing of fierce beauty and she had clearly modelled it on the old one he kept in his work bag, which had been made by the ancestors and passed down through her mother’s line to him. He was impressed with the workmanship and the time she had taken to get the proportions right, scaling it up so that the end result was a third bigger than the original. At the same time, he knew a fleeting disappointment that she should have made something as plain as a spearhead in her first casting. He turned it over to examine the back, buying himself time.

That was when he found the first deception. It was not only a spearhead; when she laid it on the bench, she had placed it carefully so that the back was hidden and he had not seen the detail on the reverse that made it also a brooch, cast in the old style of his forefathers, with a front face that showed to the world and two holes behind for the pin to pass through and hold it in place on the cloak. It was clever, and he felt a surge of warm pride. She had learned better than he had expected from her years of watching and this was as good as anything he could have made at starting. Then, turning it round, he saw the third thing and knew she had surpassed him. Like the best of craftsmen, she had caught life in simplicity, motion in stillness, and what he saw in front of him raised the hairs on his arms. Held one way, it was still a spear, a thing made for a warrior. Held differently, the curved arcs patterning the front face resolved themselves into something quite other. He turned it on his palm to catch the light from the fire. The bronze shimmered in the heat and on the surface, moulded in place, the red kite of the Coritani fell beneath the punishing claws of the small, fierce, yellow-eyed owl that hunts by day - the one that had been the dream of her mother. All winter he had dreamed his vengeance. His daughter had cast it in bronze.

He stood for a long time in silence. The words of the elder grandmother echoed in his ears. She draws out her dream, as you should do. He raised his eyes. Breaca stood as she had before, her good hand still on the forging block, the other hanging loose at her side. The smile and the colour had drained from her face, leaving her grey with the morning. She would not ask; her pride would not allow it. He must give her what she needed, freely and with integrity, but it was hard to look at it critically, as he would the work of another smith. He forced his eye along the lines, matching and balancing the individual markings with the overall flow. Without thinking, he reached for his polishing sand and smoothed off a blemish on the surface. The involuntary movement of her arm brought him back to himself.

He laid the piece down again. He owed her honesty; she would expect no less. ‘It is close to perfect,’ he said.

‘But … ?

‘But you didn’t use the drawing tool. The two arcs of the eyes are not quite balanced. This one here’ - his finger followed a line on the surface - ‘does not match the one over here.’

She had known it. He could see the truth in the tilt of her head and the single vertical line of her frown. ‘I couldn’t take the tool without you noticing,’ she said. ‘I tried to make one of my own, but it didn’t work.’

‘But still, it is a remarkable piece. And very beautiful.’ He reached up to the top shelf for his workbox. The punch that lay in the centre, protected by wool, had as its end-piece the shape of a feeding shebear, the mark of his family. He held it out to her now. ‘If you want to use it,’ he offered, ‘it is well worth the mark.’

It was the best gift he could have given her and she had not expected as much. Her eyes shone and he realized with shock that there were tears at the corners. ‘Do you think it is good enough?’ she asked.

‘I wouldn’t offer did I not.’

He passed her his middle hammer. She took the stamp from him and placed it on the front face of the brooch, on a patch of bare metal left free of ornament. The sound rang out like a bell. With the mark in place, the shape of it balanced better so that he wondered if the asymmetry had been more deliberate than she had allowed. Outside, the sun broke over the horizon. A stray shard of sunlight angled in through the doorway and fell on the bench. Eburovic moved the new piece into the path of it so that the owl shone gold. They looked at it together. He said, ‘Would you wear it now?’

BOOK: Dreaming the Eagle
4.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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