It was not the first time. That had been only days after Cyrus arrived at the Keep in the Mountains of the Evermoon, when he was still discovering just how well the jagged peaks lived up to their name.
The moon neither waxed nor waned. It was always full, and enormous, and near bright as the sun. There were no shutters in the Keep, and when the Master had appeared Cyrus was struggling through yet another restless night. Giving up, he had turned over, intending to fetch a cup of water, only to find the Master standing there, holding a decanter of wine, and watching him. The Master hadn’t appeared to notice that Cyrus had woken; he made no movement. He just stood there for a length of time, turned, and left. Cyrus had never been so terrified in his life.
Now, it was almost routine.
But tonight was different. There was a lantern in the Master’s hand, and he was not drunk. “Come,” he said. “Get dressed. Warmly.”
Cyrus did so, suddenly wide awake.
Cyrus was a blacksmith, and he was a damn good one. He knew this like he knew the sun would rise. It was his life, a passion as hot as the fires he stoked. He loved the weight of the hammer and its shrill cry when it smote the anvil. He reveled in the heat and sweat and ache that went into each creation, the inimitable joy that followed each triumph.
But Cyrus eye was always to the horizon. He knew he was great, but his home of Eastport was a far and humble hamlet in a far and humble province. He was still quite young when he came to understand that the honor due him would never be his while there.
That was before the Royal Aegis came.
Cyrus struggled to keep pace with the Master. The entrance hall to the Keep of the Evermoon was sweeping, majestic, and empty. Supposedly the Royal family had summered in the Keep long ago. There was, after all, a Greatdoor that opened right onto the winding path that led to it.
Carran IV was Lord of Merrymont when Cyrus was chosen; the old man had ruled the province for thirty years and had never deigned to step foot in Eastport. He was there that day, though, with the Royal Aegis, and to Cyrus’ mind, quite underwhelming compared to what he had thought a Lord should be. Carran was frail, gray, and surrounded by a retinue of forty guards as if certain the humble citizens of Eastport would otherwise rip him from his horse and dismember him.
The Royal Aegis had no such guard. The Royal Aegis had no need of one. He was taller than every hut in Eastport; his armor was silver and gleaming, covering him head to toe, save for rectangular cuts in his full-helm, behind which two emerald glints shone. His horse left dinner-plate sized hoof-prints in the muck and snorted as if disgusted by the town’s very existence.
Cyrus remembered every detail. The entire town out in the streets, kneeling; some writhing, weeping, overwhelmed by the presence of a Divine Royal. He remembered the wind sweeping the lasts wisps of gray hair across Lord Carran’s sunken face; he remembered Master Millerson, to whom Cyrus was apprenticed, drooling and quivering beside him. And then the Aegis spoke; the Aegis spoke, and Cyrus suddenly saw all he had dreamed materialize before his eyes. He saw the great castle of Heavenfall; he saw renown that swept the entire Kingdom. He saw the lands he would own, the servants he would have, the honor and glory that would be his. He saw his name emblazoned in the stars for eternity, for all to see, and know, and tremble before.
The Aegis spoke, and called Cyrus Smith by name, and said Cyrus was to be a blacksmith--but not just any blacksmith.
A King’s blacksmith.
The Master headed to the far wall of the barren throne room, behind the two forlorn obsidian thrones.
He turned to Cyrus.
“Do you know why you’re here?” he said.
Cyrus, taken aback, tried to come up with a suitable answer. “To learn from you. To serve the King.”
The Master waved his hand dismissively. “Yes, yes. But do you know why you’re here?”
Cyrus didn’t know which would be worse: to stay silent or to ask for clarification.
He never would have thought he’d miss Master Millerson, the doddering old fool, who incidentally had no qualms about taking credit for Cyrus’ work. But anyone would have been better than the drunken, belligerent Master, who berated Cyrus at for any mistake either real or perceived, and randomly appeared in Cyrus’ room in the night.
And worst of all--much, much worse--he was better than Cyrus. In less than a year, Cyrus had surpassed Master Millerson in every way possible. He had been the pride of Eastport, and all showered him with praise for his talent. But in the Keep of the Evermoon, Cyrus Smith felt like a fumbling idiot about an art he had loved since childhood.
Cyrus could not abide this, but nor could he ever seem to do anything about it. Cyrus girded himself for the curse-filled rebuke he knew was coming.
But the Master merely pulled something from the pocket of his robe: a round object of stone. Upon the face was a carving, worn down, but not so badly that Cyrus couldn’t make out the image. It was the seal of the King.
The Keep was entirely still, entirely mute.
The Master pressed the seal against a brick on the wall. There was a burst of white light from the edge. The Master removed the seal, and a yellow-gold, intricately detailed picture remained, not of the seal, but something…else. Spectral beings moved thereon, beautiful and frightening. The Master put on a black glove, studded with strange jewels filed down into rounded half-globes. With this he touched the image.
The Keep shuddered. The bricks peeled back, revealing a door. But not a usual door. Cyrus touched its surface. It was the smallest of its kind he’d ever seen, but its shape and nature was unmistakable.
“Is…is this a greatdoor?”
“Of a kind,” said the Master.
Cyrus had never been through a Greatdoor before sojourning to the Keep; doing so with the Royal Aegis had only increased his anxiety. They had crossed through the nearest one, in the provincial capital of Merrymont. It was within the Lord’s castle, but when the keepers had opened the door, Cyrus saw, in the middle of a castle, a winding road leading through a snow-covered mountainous vista. They went through, the door closed, and Cyrus was suddenly shivering in the Mountains of the Evermoon, a journey of two thousand leagues finished in half a second.
But this greatdoor was nothing like the other. When the Master opened it, it led to nothing.
Literal nothing, save a set of stairs that descended into pure, unending black. Cyrus felt hollow, as if his very essence had fled. Every fiber of his being resisted entering that immense nothingness.
But he would not be weak. Not in front of the Master.
When they crossed over, the door closed. And there they stood, alone, on a small landing suspended in an infinite black void.
Cyrus shuddered. The Master didn’t seem perturbed. His lantern was like a beacon of sanity, and Cyrus rushed into its comforting glow.
They descended the stairway, and as they did, the Master spoke:
“We know little of the time before the Royals. But our histories do speak of the mysterious obelisks standing throughout the world, worshipped by our ancestors. They were the Greatdoors--the true Greatdoors. They did not serve as convenient little ways to flit back and forth across the realm. No: the true Greatdoors opened into other realities. And still do.”
Cyrus was almost hugging the Master, certain that were he to leave the lantern light he would be lost forever.
“Once,” the Master said. “There was a reality suffused with great power. A heaven, in more ways than one. The beings that lived within that world were mighty, able to work impossible feats. One of their abilities was to warp the threads of reality, twisting it to make the far near, the near far. Their understanding of reality, and by extension the Greatdoors, was unmatched.
“But might and knowledge are not wisdom. The beings were also vain, envious, and shortsighted. They warred and plundered interminably, each battle more destructive than the last, until one day their reality simply broke. The Greatdoors in their realm burst open, and many realities beyond perished. But many others survived, and into these the celestial beings fell.”
Cyrus suddenly understood: “Are you speaking of Heavenfall? The King?”
“The King, and all the Royals. The King and his kin landed at Heavenfall. Others landed elsewhere, establishing the other kingdoms. Still more may have survived, living beyond the true Greatdoors in further realities.”
At the bottom of the stair they came to a double door. The Master grasped one of its handles and indicated that Cyrus should grasp the other. The handle was iron, and cold.
“Pull,” said the Master.
The door cracked open and a blinding light fired through the gap. Cyrus covered his eyes and cried out, desperate for the dark that had cowed him moments before; anything to escape the great and terrible light.
He felt the Master’s hand on his shoulder.
The light, by degrees, became tolerable. Warily, Cyrus opened his eyes. The light expanded from the open door in a halo. The Master snuffed out the lantern.
“Secure in their new reality,” he said. “The celestial beings resumed their warring ways. Why? Why, indeed. Perhaps they love death and destruction. Perhaps they’re just bored. Perhaps it’s a game to them. And now they have so many pieces to play with. All of these lesser beings, entranced by their glory, feeble before their power.”
The room was circular and plain. It wouldn’t have been out of place in some nameless holdfast. On a stone obelisk in the center was a large bowl, and within the bowl, a fire burned. Only it wasn’t a fire--it was like a small sun, sputtering with eerie wisps of golden flame.
Before it, Cyrus felt very small, very alone, and very insignificant. He began to kneel before the light. It just seemed like what he should do. But the Master stopped him.
“No need for that,” he said.
Cyrus couldn’t manage to speak, but the Master answered, for there was only one question that could be asked:
“It is the King’s divinity,” he said. “A piece of His holiness, placed here, far away in the north, hidden in a pocket between realities constructed by the King himself.”
The Master set the lantern on the ground and flexed the fingers of his gloved hand before plunging it into the light. When he withdrew his hand, a wisp of the flame-like substance danced upon the rounded jewels.
“This is our burden,” said the Master. “With this, we weave the King’s divinity into steel and iron; this is the answer to His dominance, and why no other kingdom ruled by His brethren has been able to long stand against Him.”
Cyrus desired nothing more than to touch that wondrous flame, but the Master moved it out of reach.
“Do you know now why you’re here?” said the Master.
In the presence of that light, Cyrus could only speak the pure truth: “No.”
“Then for now, we work.”
“Prince Devan requires a sword for the Queen’s tournament at Heavenfall,” said the Master. “His Grace has granted him permission to wield a divine blade. And so we work.”
The Master’s fingers moved along steel glowing red as dawn. Invisible ribbons of heat shimmered in the air. The King’s divinity wove in curls about the metal and when it touched down the Master smote it with the hammer. Another curl fell and he struck it as well, waiting and striking, waiting and striking, until the light was gone and only the red-hot blade remained. This the Master shoved back in the forge, holding it there. And holding it. And holding it.
“It’s going to melt,” Cyrus said. His throat felt like sand, so great was the heat, and his eyes were like dusty coals. He didn’t dare blink. He didn’t dare miss anything.
The Master swung the blade back onto the anvil. Contradicting all Cyrus had ever learned, it had not melted. It had not even lost its form. The Master flurried the impossibly hot metal with a series of sharp blows, then drove it into a slack tub large and deep enough to hold ten men. Steam burst from the tub in an enormous cloud that spun fog through the whole chamber. When it dissipated, only a few minuscule puddles remained.
The blade was gray-white, but somehow alight, like the armor of the Royal Aegis. The Master held it towards Cyrus. “Lay your hand upon it.”
Cyrus caressed the steel with his fingertips. He felt a peculiar hum, as if the blade were vibrating. As if it were alive.
“Praise the King,” he said.
The Master pulled back the blade. “Praise the King, yes. With such a mighty weapon, Prince Devan will surely slaughter any knights that challenge him. The lickspittles and schemers will clap and say how noble and skilled the Prince is as his holy blade sheers through stone and steel like it were butter.”
Cyrus was dumbfounded. The Master had completed a great work, and yet he was speaking madness. Men had been beheaded for less treasonous words.
The Master smiled. “A free tongue is granted to two kinds of people, Cyrus Smith: the fool and the indispensable. And I happen to be both.”
The power and expertise he had evidenced a few minutes prior might as well have been a dream. He sounded very old, and very tired. He hung the sword upon a rack.
“It is late,” he said. “We shall construct the scabbard tomorrow.”
The Master retrieved his lantern and departed. But Cyrus hung back. He examined the cinders in the forge and the empty tub and the sword, gleaming even as the light faded. He walked over to the anvil. It had melted.
The Master was still usually drunk, but the harshness was gone. Whatever advice he did offer was gentle and sparse. And the nocturnal visits had ceased. Cyrus woke one morning and realized he had slept soundly through the night for many months. He desperately wanted to ask the Master what had happened, but of course did not. Some doors, when closed, were better left unopened.
Every once in a while, the Master would find Cyrus and inform him of the King’s command. A shield, a sword, a spear, a breastplate, even a broach or crown. For ceremony or strength, the King desired an item invested with divine might. And every time, the Master would ask if Cyrus knew why he was there.
Cyrus gave every answer he could think of, both logical and illogical. None satisfied the Master.
“Why don’t you just tell me,” Cyrus snapped once.
The Master had given him an odd look, and said: “Because you will only believe it if you answer it.”
That had been the first night he had let Cyrus take the Light Hand, and forge the divine metal.
Soon, the Master did nothing but watch him work. Soon, he did nothing but ask the question.
Once, Cyrus was polishing a new-made half-helm, when he asked, almost idly: “What is the divinity?”
The Master whipped towards him. “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what is it? Is it fire or…some kind of heat? A soul of some sort?”
“What do you think?” the Master said. He looked quite harried, and Cyrus had no idea what he had said to cause this.
“I’m not sure…” he replied, a bit afraid the Master was going to have a fit. “It’s material, it’s tangible…but I don’t know what to make of it. It’s like I almost can put words to it, and then they slip away.”
“Do you think it’s possible to understand it?” said the Master.
“I…don’t know,” said Cyrus. “It doesn’t really matter.”
The Master’s face fell.
“Did I do something wrong?” Cyrus said.
“No, Cyrus,” the Master said. “No.”
It was cloudy, and snow showers dappled the walks with silvery coins. Cyrus was heavily clothed under layers of blankets in bed.
The clouds obscured the moon; it was as close to full dark as could be in these mountains, and the dimness made the Master more wraith than man.
Cyrus was finally accustomed to falling asleep under the ineffable white glare of the moon, but the extreme cold of the last few nights was different matter. It was this that saved him, for in his fitful rest he caught a glimpse of the Master as he slunk to Cyrus’ bedside.
Of the Master he could discern little: a dark silhouette, with a decanter in hand. A long, slender decanter stabbing out from the Master’s fist.
No, Cyrus thought. That could not be right. It was just a decanter, heavy with wine, like always.
The Master tapped the object that had to be a decanter against his thigh. Cyrus did not dare to breathe.
The Master raised the long and slender object in both hands, high above Cyrus.
Cyrus perceived a hundred ways he could save himself. The Master was old and weak, and Cyrus was young and quick. The Master did not know that Cyrus was awake. There were so many options, if he could just move.
He could not. It was as if all the possibilities ran together, clogging his brain like refuse in a stream, leaving him only able to gaze wide-eyed at imminent and baffling death. What had he done? What in the name of the King had he done?
“Why…” he rasped.
The shadow recoiled. The knife shook. Strange sounds emerged from the wraith-man: clotted, hiccupping breaths, and then he tossed the knife away. It clattered with a distant chime in a dark corner.
The Master cried out, loud and high and shrill, almost a scream. He fled as a drunken man flees: stumbling, falling, kicking back to his feet, hitting the doorframe, and lurching down the stairs.
Cyrus’ went after him, fearing the old man was going to break his neck on the swirling stairs. But he had not. Cyrus continued all the way to the upper-floor balcony of the Main Hall, above the forsaken Throne Room, where the Master’s chambers were.
The chambers had doors, but they did not lock. Still, Cyrus did not relish the thought of barging in. He knocked, gently at first, then with more force. Nothing stirred within.
“Master?” he said. “Master, is everything all right?”
Only silence. But it felt like an intentional silence. The silence of one not wanting to be heard.
Cyrus leaned back against the door. He wasn’t angry or scared. Just…sad. The Master was disturbed, there could be no doubt. From drink? Age? Both? It didn’t matter. He’d served the King for long years, and it had obviously addled him.
The old man deserved to rest. He deserved peace and quiet, to live out his last in a nice holdfast on a bright beach with servants and lands, no longer compelled to shoulder such an incredible burden. Not at his age. Not after so long.
The next time the couriers came with the Keep’s provisions, the Aegis was with them.
Cyrus had received no word of his coming. Heart thudding, he knelt, but the Aegis waved a hand and bid him rise.
“The King has received favorable reports,” said the Aegis. “You have made great progress.”
Cyrus was shocked. He had no idea the Master had been in touch with Heavenfall. The old man had not left his chambers since that night some weeks before. Had he been contacting the King the whole time?
Or even since Cyrus arrived?
“The Master honors me,” said Cyrus.
Emerald sparkled in the tenebrous slits of the Aegis’s helm. “The King desires a token, some evidence of your skill. He would like you to create a shield, unadorned, but one that can withstand the ravages of battle. Can you accomplish this?”
No word, no hint, no warning. The suddenness of it blasted all knowledge from Cyrus’ mind. For an insane instant, he couldn’t even remember how to light a fire.
“He can,” said a voice. It was the Master, sweeping down the main stair. His robe was filthy, his hair uncombed. His cheeks bore a week’s worth of uneven beard and his eyes were the teary, reddened eyes of a man who has done nothing but drink for a good length of time. But his voice was strong.
“You must forgive my apprentice, my Lord,” said the Master. “He is in awe of the Royal presence and unaware of your coming.”
“Can he speak for himself?” said the Aegis.
“I suppose that’s up to him.”
The Aegis peered down at Cyrus. “I ask you again, Cyrus Smith, if you can accomplish this task.”
He opened the pathway to the void and led the Master and the Aegis across the blackness. He had a lantern, but it was almost redundant, for the Aegis manifested a queer light, and Cyrus recalled his last day in Eastport, when the wan sky seemed to brighten with the Aegis’s mere presence. That felt like a lifetime ago.
The Aegis did not comment as Cyrus collected a spark of the King’s divinity and led them back to the Keep, and kept his silence as Cyrus worked.
Cyrus had worried the Aegis’s presence might fluster him, that the prospect of failure would gnaw at his mind. But he was a blacksmith through and through, and once the work began, it was all he saw. He was in his element, and as he went along, all hesitancy fled.
His work was still slower than the Master’s, but when he plunged the shield into the pool and the steam enveloped them, he knew it was good. The Aegis’s approval was mere confirmation.
“It is fine work, and timely done,” said the Aegis. “But can you create more? Swords and shields, gorgets and breastplates, lances and helms, both great and small?”
“Yes,” Cyrus said firmly.
“Do not speak lightly,” said the Royal Aegis. “The King is patient, but He takes men at their word. Say that you are still ill-equipped, and you shall be given all the time you need to master your art. But declare that you are ready, and you shall be held to account for such.”
“Whatever His Grace desires, I can fulfill,” said Cyrus.
The Aegis placed the shield upon a silk coverlet with a delicacy antithetical to his size. “Then I shall return to Heavenfall and seek a Decree.”
“A Royal Decree.”
Cyrus started. He had forgotten the Master was there.
“A Royal Decree,” the Master said again. “To make you the King’s Blacksmith.”
The shadows lengthened on the walls as the Aegis faced the Master. The Master stared back into those two slits, where deeply recessed in darkness two fiery green pinpricks pulsed.
Cyrus shook his head. He had been thinking something, but he could not remember it. He felt immersed in fog. Where was he? He was unsure of his thoughts. He was unsure that he was unsure. Shadows. Green eyes laced with poison. Not eyes. Reflection; flame in death; burning; all fire--what were his thoughts? Uncertain. Was he uncertain? All was fog. Something--shadow, death, poison, flame--green flame.
Then it was gone, and Cyrus felt wonderful. Why wouldn’t he? He had passed the test with no foreknowledge of it whatsoever. He was about to be made a King’s Blacksmith. The hopes and visions he had since his youth were so near he could almost taste the wine and touch the gold. He could not suppress a grin.
The Aegis thanked Cyrus once more and took his leave. Cyrus watched him go, giddy with childlike happiness.
It was true that his dreams were marred by strange, vague shapes, by beings beyond his comprehension, by a scum of green mire that melted flesh. But they were just dreams, and Cyrus had never long remembered his dreams upon waking.
It was late at night when he heard the noise. The fire was blazing, and he was poring over a book, sipping a small glass of wine.
Curious, he drew his dressing gown around him and went searching.
They were halfway down the left-hand stairs in the entrance hall when he spied them. Half a dozen at least, in the black armor of the Throne Guard. Two carried the Master, who was as limp as a sack of potatoes.
Cyrus called out. They ignored him.
The Throne Guard were men, but they were men entrusted to guard the King and carry out His edicts; their strength and speed had to be unequaled among mortals. Cyrus was unburdened by armor and carrying nothing, and still did not catch up with them until they were almost near the exit.
Annoyed, Cyrus snapped: “Stop! Unhand him at once!”
They stopped. One of them, wearing the black cape with red fringe of a Captain, came towards him.
Cyrus stood tall. He had the favor of the King, after all. What did a random Throne Guard matter to him?
“Are you stupid, or just have a death wish?” he said. “That is the King’s Blacksmith.”
The Captain lifted a hand, armored with the red-painted gauntlets of his order, and brought it down across Cyrus’ cheek.
Cyrus went sprawling, his vision blooming with stars. His ear shrilled, and his nose was a focused ball of pain.
“You are the King’s Blacksmith,” said the Captain.
The Master lifted his head, and what Cyrus saw chilled him; or rather, what he did not see. For there was no fear on the Master’s face. No anger, confusion, or sadness. There was simply nothing.
And he understood.
“They can’t work the metal, can they?” he said to the Captain, to the Master, to them all. “They can’t comprehend it, just like we can’t comprehend them. That’s why they need us.”
The Master bowed his head. The Throne Guard did not answer. They all crossed the threshold, and the portcullis slammed shut.
It was some years before he saw the Royal Aegis again.
He had thrown down his hammer, refusing to light another fire until he was allowed to speak to the King, assuring himself that they would not, and could not, kill him.
At first this supposition bore out. No matter how badly he abused the guards and couriers, no one lifted a hand to him.
Then the Aegis arrived. They met in the entrance hall, staring across at each other: Cyrus alone, arms folded, expression defiant, the Aegis implacable as always, flanked by two of the Keep’s guards.
“I hear that there has been some trouble recently, Master Smith,” he said.
Cyrus told him his demand.
“I think you know that is impossible, Master Smith,” said the Aegis.
“Then there will not be another weapon forged in this castle,” Cyrus said.
The Aegis was silent a moment. “I see. And how far are you willing to go with this treason, Master Smith? What is it worth to you? All the lives in Eastport?”
Cyrus barked a laugh, so ridiculous was the threat. “I haven’t seen my home in many years, Aegis, and I didn’t care much for it when I was there.”
“Of course,” said the Aegis. Then he effortlessly plucked the side-dagger from the belt of one of the guards. He tossed it at Cyrus’ feet. The blade could have been forged by any apprentice in the realm. But it was sharp enough to do the job.
“If you are so certain, Master Smith,” said the Aegis. “Then I encourage you to bring this to its conclusion; that, or allow us to do it for you.”
“It will be inconvenient, this is so,” said the Aegis. “Very inconvenient. But it has happened before. Or are you so conceited that you believe you are the first to entertain this foolishness?”
Cyrus snatched up the blade and stuck the point to his wrist: “I’ll do it, you inhuman bastard. I will do it.”
“I said I will not stop you,” said the Aegis. “It will spare us the trouble.”
The point of the knife pushed against the thin skin of his wrist. He could feel the pulse beneath it, the hot blood rushing through. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, his breath quickening. The forge flashed across his sight, and he saw, perhaps for the first time, the meaning of Ending: no more hammer, no more anvil, no more heat and sweat and soot--no more creation. Perhaps for the first time, he understood that there existed a nothingness more empty and terrifying than even the void that hid the King’s divinity: for this nothingness had many ways to enter, and none to leave.
Knowing he had been beaten, he madly lashed out, rushing the Aegis with a primal yell. None of them, the guards or the Aegis, even twitched. Cyrus drove the dagger towards the weak joint of the knee. The blade hit the thigh plate above the knee and shattered like ice.
The Aegis knelt; even so, Cyrus still had to look up at him.
“Yes, Cyrus Smith,” said the Aegis. “I believe you are exactly the kind of man we need.”
And after, Cyrus once again perceived the loveliness of the snow-capped peaks of the Mountains of the Evermoon.
After a time the wine was his only solace. He would think of the Master while imbibing, and how he had loathed him once. Now, when Cyrus looked in the mirror, it amazed him how much he resembled the old man.
But Cyrus fell under a curse that the Master had not. There came a time when he could no longer walk any great distance without losing his breath: it felt like a boulder was sitting on top of his chest, and climbing stairs was a monumental undertaking. A simple trip from the main hall to his quarters required three or four rest breaks. He had already been forced to abandon all but his chambers, the entrance hall, the forge, and the Throne Room--and of course, what was beyond. But reaching those, too, were proving more and more untenable.
Thus did Cyrus Smith once again see the Royal Aegis.
“Hello, Master Smith,” he said, his pearly armor making the grim halls of the Keep somehow merry and bright. “I hope you have been well. Word has reached Heavenfall that you are having some trouble navigating the castle. Is there any way I can assist?”
Cyrus told him no, everything was fine, he was grateful for the visit but there was no need.
“I see,” said the Aegis. “Then can you escort me through the towers? Long has it been since I have walked these halls.”
Cyrus cursed him in every way he knew; though not out loud, of course. He could barely make it halfway up the main stairs before he had to stop.
“You have given the King long years of service, Master Cyrus,” said the King’s right hand, as Cyrus wheezed and clutched his chest. “Your work is of great renown. The meagre kingdoms of His Grace’s enemies have retrenched against the might of His armies; the weapons of Heavenfall are feared throughout the known world. Yes, truly, the King is indebted to you. We cannot repay that debt. But will you let us try? Let us bring you a helper, to assist you in your endeavors.”
If Cyrus had the breath, he would have chuckled. It didn’t matter that Cyrus knew the truth: the Aegis was just supposed to say these words, as he probably had countless times before, and Cyrus was supposed to nod and say sure, sure, that was a good idea, he could use a helper.
So he did.
It was a five-hundred span fall to the ridge below the Keep, same as it always had been, and he considered the distance as he sat upon the North landing, which faced the Greatdoor to the Mountains of the Evermoon. He sloshed the remaining wine around in the decanter. It was full just an hour ago, yet he was nowhere close to drunk.
He did not know what eager young man would accompany the Royal Aegis through the Greatdoor. But he did know this: the boy would have passion, a burning passion for the anvil and hammer, and an unquenchable thirst for fame and fortune.
And he would have it, the new boy. He would have all he desired. None would know his name, but his creations would indeed be famous through the entire known world.
He took another drink.
He remembered the first time the Master had demonstrated the weaving of the King’s divinity: how alive he’d looked, how sharp and expert. The new apprentice would see the same thing in Cyrus. After all that had happened, the new apprentice would see that same passion. For Cyrus Smith loved his work. He loved it too much to abandon it.
He knew where this ended. Had known for close to a lifetime. But there was the forge to think of; the inimitable birth of deadly art. And when he crossed into that Other Void, it would all be lost, forever.
The distance to the ridge was five hundred feet, and it would remain unstained by his blood. He would put it off as long as possible. He would put it off because it terrified him, that Other Void that he had glimpsed in his youth. He would put it off because it would mean no more fires would be lit. He would put if off because there was always one more work to be finished.
So he sat on the landing overlooking mountains, and finished off the decanter, and waited, patiently, for the Royal Aegis to appear around the bend, with the King’s Blacksmith in tow.
© June, 2015 Cameron Huntley
Cameron Huntley has previously published stories in The Dream Quarry and Goldfish Grimm's Spicy Fiction Sushi.