~Book Two of the Hunted Mage Trilogy~
The sounds of the busy forge quieted as Erick bellowed at Hessu.
“It matters little what they WANT! They cannot have it!” He growled in frustration as he pulled the apron over his head and flung it at the ground. He sat down on one of the anvils wiped the sweat from his brow.
Hessu’s face darkened with anger, but he spoke with his usual calmness.
“You need not yell at ME, Master. You agreed to take Ragnor’s commission and then told me to deal with it. Now they come to me with their wishes and I, in turn, bring them to you. They want more and faster!”
Erick clenched his fists and began to fume with his eyes squinted tightly closed.
“How many,” he said with jaws grinding the words, “do they want now and when do they think they can get them?”
Hessu glanced at his slate and ran his fingers through his hair. The boy’s hands trembled as Erick watched.
I am being unfair to him. It has fallen to him to negotiate with the marauder’s men. I should not be so harsh, Erick thought. He stretched out his hands and could feel the joints in his fingers creak, so hard had his fists been closed.
Bloody iron arrowheads! Ragnor could have a thousand arrows made a day if he would but take bone or flint, but the gods-cursed Mighty Warlord has to have bloody iron!
“They want two thousand in the next fortnight.”
Hessu’s face had gone lifeless as he spoke the numbers to Erick.
He is braced for a storm, Erick thought with a sigh. Have I become such a tyrant?
He reached a huge hand over to the journeyman’s shoulder and shook him.
“I am sorry, lad. It is not your fault and I should not lash out at you for it!”
Hessu accepted his words with the slightest of nods and tapped the slate with his fingernail.
“If we do nothing else but forge arrowheads…the three of us need to craft four dozen each day! The two boys are not yet capable of the task. They can strike for two of us…but we will need to take in another as third…”
Erick raised a hand to stop his journeyman’s words.
“Four dozen each day? Even if a third lad were trained already, we would not have enough hours in the day to turn out that many.”
“And we have other work partly paid for as well that we dare not neglect. Ragnor’s men are insistent and I am tired of explaining to them that iron is harder to work than bronze. It takes more time. They do not understand,” he said with a grimace.
Erick rolled his shoulders back and twisted his head until it popped. He found that he stiffened quickly as he aged. His thoughts piled upon each other and he felt a headache begin.
“It cannot be helped. We will work as best we can. Can we find a few lads from another smithy to help out until we finish?”
The look of despair that clouded Hessu’s face was answer enough for Erick.
“I have already asked many. Ragnor has commissioned similar orders from all of them. Well, those I would trust to have apprentices trained how we would like them, at least. Every smith and ‘prentice within a days ride will be as hard at it as we.”
And Ragnor holds our city firmly in his grip. We had all better give him what he wants, had we not? Erick thought. He closed his eyes once more.
“When next they come, send them to me. You do not need to deal with them again. Let us begin and we will fill as much of their order as we may.”
He saw the relief in Hessu’s form as the journeyman made his way to the men and boys who stared at the Master with apprehension.
Erick could not hear Hessu’s words, but he watched the dismay and calculation cross their features. Juno knew what they were up against and blew out his cheeks in an exaggerated gust of air with eyebrows raised.
The apprentices were largely clueless, Erick realized. They suspected that the news meant more work for them and that was all. It would take a few words from Juno or Hessu to bring them into the reality of the task.
He stood and stretched, then stooped for his apron.
“HESSU! Stoke the forges! Get them to work!”
His roar made them all jump and they scrambled to the hearths in a frantic rush that made him laugh.
* * *
They spent two long days in a frenzy of activity.
Hessu roused the young apprentices before dawn and they filled the water barrels, refueled the forges and built up the slumbering embers in an exhausted shuffle.
Erick’s entire body ached from the constant pounding of hammer on iron and his head throbbed with the ring of it.
Two days of this and already I feel like a corpse, he thought with a groan as he lifted two sacks of iron ore by the necks and dragged them toward the smithy door. It was the last of their supply. If the cart-load he had ordered did not arrive by midday, they would be forced to stop and wait.
Two days of four dozen arrowheads from each of us! We have done it but we cannot keep to this pace.
He had climbed into his cot for six hours of rest but had not slept for two of them. The tingle in his hands from the pounding of the hammer had kept him from slumber. Even as dawn broke and he rose from his fitful sleep, he found that his hands shook as he ladled water into his parched mouth.
He reached the first hearth and let the bags fall next to the stone chimney. The lads would empty them into the crucible when the fire was hot enough.
He stepped from one hearth to the next and pumped the bellows at each. He added coal to each of the beds until they all glowed to his liking.
He turned to find a man who watched him from within the deep cowl of his dusty, hooded cloak.
“Mother of God! What are you doing in my forge, man? Get out before you do yourself harm! We are too busy for you today!”
The hunched figure hobbled back a pace and lifted its hands to his hood and drew it back just enough to show Erick the mottled face beneath.
“If you think aught you have here frightens me…”
The voice was raspy and came from lips that seemed melted and were drawn to one side in a crooked smile.
Jesu, God in Heaven…Erick thought with a shiver.
The withered hands reached up to draw the hood back into place and then disappeared into the cloak’s folds.
Erick felt his mouth working as he tried to voice the questions that were striking within his mind, but found he could not make the words come out.
“You are the Master smith here?” The man’s croak was filled with doubt.
Speak, you great dolt! He does not need your stare. He gets stares aplenty wherever he goes, no doubt.
He cleared his throat and answered.
“I am! And my warning stands. I will not have further harm come to you under my roof. So…please! Step outside my doors and I will speak with you when I am able.”
The intruder inclined his head and stared without speaking. Erick could see the glitter of his eyes in the glow of the hearth. They were narrowed to slits and the man’s cheek twitched as his lips pulled into a sneer.
“I thought Jorma had spoken to you and that there would, at least, be some courtesy at my arrival.”
The man turned and limped toward the doorway.
The Mage? Here, now! Of course, he is here when I am at my very busiest and can scarcely…damn it!
Erick motioned to Hessu to take his place at the hearths and hurried after the Mage. He ducked his head under the arch of the door and saw the crippled man leaving the yard.
“Mage!” Erick called after him and felt foolish for it.
It sounds like an insult when I yell it like that. Why din Jorma not tell me his name?
The man turned with a wince and stared at Erick with a hooded stare.
“Smith!” He said the word with disdain.
Erick picked up a bucket that lay beside the fresh water barrel and filled it. The apprentices had filled it to the brim the night before under threat of a beating if they did not.
He offered the bucket and a dipper to the Mage and nodded toward a section of log to sit upon while they drank.
Erick could feel the cool morning air begin to dry the sweat that already gathered upon his brows and arms.
“My courtesy is wanting today. It is true. I did not expect you here, but a message from Jorma that would instruct me when and where we would meet.”
The Mage pursed his lips and sat with a slowness that spoke of great pain to the smith.
“The carter wished me to name a time but I refused. Time presses upon me and I would like my work with completed as soon as I may.” He reached out and took the handle of the dipper and drew it to his lips with a hand that trembled under the weight of it.
Erick held his words until the man let the ladle drop back into the bucket and wiped his lips with a cloth.
“I cannot begin your work.”
The Mage turned a surprised look to him and chuckled quietly. It was an unpleasant gurgle that made the skin of Erick’s neck tighten with in fear.
“That will not do, Smith. Why has Jorma placed me in your care with such confidence if you are unable to meet my needs?”
Erick took a ladle-full of water before he answered with a frown.
“I do not conduct my business by Jorma Cart-boy’s leave, Mage. I have a large order placed by Ragnor’s underlings that taxes my men and me to our limits,” Erick said. He tried to speak the words as bluntly as he knew how, but they sounded petulant in his ears.
It is that bloody stare he has, like a snake. I am too busy to help him now and that is that. Just say it, man!
He grunted and began to stand up when the shriveled hand waved for him to sit once more.
“I cannot. I have too many tasks today as it is. If I dally here longer it will only get worse. I can help you in twelve days or so. I may not finish even then, but I cannot help sooner.”
The Mage laughed.
“I may have a solution for you. If you will but ‘dally’ a moment more.”