The hammer beat a steady rhythm on the anvil, flattening the glowing metal, stretching it out. With a flick of his wrist, Wyer expertly folded the flat sheet over and over on itself and hammered again. He worked steadily, evenly, each movement practiced. Strike, stretch, fold, strike, stretch, fold, strike, stretch, till the orange glow began to fade to a dull grey-blue. He folded the iron into a thick bar, then thrust it back into the heart of the forge.
Stepping to the bellows, Wyer pumped steadily, heating the bar once more. He gazed into the fire, feeling its heat against his bare skin. A familiar feeling; sometimes a danger, but more often a comfort.
“Not unlike her,” he muttered, and then grinned. Suddenly, in the heart of the fire, a coal fragment burst, sending sparks flying. Wyer sighed, and slowed his pumping a little; a slow, even heat to work the metal. Slow and steady was always best, with the forge and with so much more. He smiled to himself, shaking his head. “She’ll be here soon enough,” he murmured.
The bar was glowing once more, so Wyer left the bellows and took up the tongs. He pulled the orange bar out of the coals and held it up, watching the ripples of colour dancing over it as the cool air of evening drifted across it. Then he placed it on the anvil again and took up the hammer.
Strike, stretch, fold, strike, stretch, fold…
Twice more Wyer heated the metal, and folded it and flattened it, then returned it to the heart of the fire. As he did so the second time, he felt eyes on his back. He smiled and straightened, rolling his shoulders against the ache that was building, despite the slabs of muscle built from years in a forge. He turned to look at her, knowing it would be her and no one else. She leaned against the doorframe, a slim familiar figure with a cascade of copper-coloured hair falling about her shoulders. Her eyes were watching him, reflecting the light of the forge.
“I like watching you work,” she said, “it’s… calming.” Wyer grinned.
“Want to work the bellows for me?”
After a moment she nodded, and stepped out of the doorway. Wyer watched her walk across the small forgeroom. She moved with an effortless, unconscious grace; that of a fighter rather than a dancer. Her frame was slight, but there was strength in every line of her. It was this strength that had first called to him, even before he had known the truth about her. She did not look much like a Queen, but Queen she was. As she came close to the fire her copper hair shimmered and crackled, and the fire crackled as though in welcome. For a moment she just stared into the flames, but then she raised her eyes to his.
“You don’t need me to work the bellows,” she said.
“True,” he replied, for so it was; it was a small forge, and he could work it well enough alone. “But it’s nice to have company.” But she shook her head at him.
“I meant you don’t need the bellows at all. I could speak to the fire for you.” Again a crackle of her hair was answered by a bursting coal amidst the flames.
“Aye, I suppose you could,” Wyer said, without taking his eyes from hers. “But… It wouldn’t be the same.”
Jobber smiled then, and Wyer grinned at her.
“What will it be?” she asked, pulling on the bellows handle and making the middle of the forge ripple with colour.
“Can’t you guess?” he teased, and she frowned at the bar of metal for a moment.
“A sword? But so may folds…”
“I’m trying something a little different. We’ve lost so much knowledge, and recovering it is one thing, but… That’ll do, I think.”
He pulled the bar from the flames and looked at it a moment, conscious that Jobber was watching him curiously.
Wyer began to beat the metal once again, but slower strokes this time, not folding but shaping it…
“Perhaps we need to look at discovering things ourselves as much as recovering what was lost. That’s all.”
Jobber barked a laugh then, and her hair crackled and sparked. Wyer said nothing, he continued to work the glowing metal, shaping it beneath the blows of his hammer. But his eyes were calm, his expression patient, open. Jobber stared at the metal he was shaping on the anvil, and after a few moments she spoke, unable to keep the bitterness from her voice.
“You’re frigging right. You cut right to the heart of it, when all I can do is twiddle my fingers and trip over my tongue. What use am I to a Queen’s frigging Council? What use am I as a frigging Queen?”
Beneath the steady blows of the hammer, Wyer had shaped the metal into a long, graceful blade. He lifted it carefully off the anvil and with a steady motion plunged it into the quenching vat. As the heated metal hissed and sent steam billowing to the ceiling, Jobber shuddered and shook herself as though she too had been plunged into water.
Wyer moved to stand before Jobber, looking at her with concern, but mostly with admiration and love. Her eyes met his for a moment, but then she looked away. Wyer’s hands closed gently on her shoulders, preventing her from turning.
Her hair crackled again, and some sparks drifted from it, settling on the skin of his arms. But Wyer had started working in Crier’s Forge with his father almost as soon as he could walk; his skin was used to the fire’s touch.
“Look at me.”
Slowly she raised her eyes to meet his, and he saw the pain and frustration and uncertainty she was feeling, clear as day. He sighed. So much had changed, for everyone, but especially for Jobber. She had grown up on the streets of Beldan, hiding everything from everyone; her past, the Oran magic in her blood, even her sex… She’d been a Beldan street snitch, living on her wits, and now she was the Fire Queen, one of the four corners of the world of Oran. So much had changed.
“We’re a long way from where we were, Jobber,” Wyer said quietly. “Three years and more since Zorah died, a lifetime away from when you were the best bellows lad in Beldan… It’s a new world now, one we are all discovering. We’re forging it one day at a time, and if we do it right, it will last long after we’re gone.”
Jobber growled in frustration and whirled away from him. Her hair glowed bright, and the air was filled with the smell of copper.
“But I’m no frigging use, Wyer! The rest of them… Dagar is so clear… He isn’t Lirrel, but there is so much of her in him. He cuts through to the truth of things. Even Shedwin and Tayleb, they’re so… They’re so confident… What use am I?”
She spun back to him, heat rolling off her, greater than the forge at her side. She shook her head angrily, and more sparks flew. A large one landed on the side of Wyer’s neck, burning him, and he slapped his hand to it, sucking in a breath.
In a moment Jobber’s anger faded, her heat dissipating with it. Wyer dropped his hand, and she moved to him, touching her now cool fingers against his skin, her eyes full of worry.
“What use am I?” she whispered again, and Wyer smiled at her.
“You’re Beldan’s Fire,” he said, and grabbed her hand before she could pull away. She opened her mouth to protest, but he squeezed her fingers gently, and she closed it again. “It’s the simple truth, Jobber. Every candle flame, every forge fire is part of you and you are part of it. You are the Fire Queen in Oran’s Knot, and without you, our world would have torn itself apart.” Slowly he pulled her hand to his lips, kissing the tips of her fingers. “You aren’t supposed to have all the answers; no one ever does. You have to find them, and it’s not always easy. But you will, together. And the rest of us will help, when we can.”
He kissed her fingertips again, and stared into her eyes. She smiled at him, then, and pulled his hand to her lips.
“What would I do without you?”
“You’d get by,” he shrugged, smiling.
“I’m not so sure. Sorry I’m such frigging raver,” she said, and he grinned.
“I’m not. It’s who you are. Just be you.”
“Aye,” said Jobber. “I’ll do my best.”
She stepped toward him then, and Wyer wrapped his arms about her. He breathed in the smell of her hair, copper and smoke, and closed his eyes.
She was his Queen. His friend. His love.