The forge was quiet, but still suffused with the brassy glow of banked coals, as Willow made the final rounds. Only the most experienced apprentices were trusted with the task of closing the shop, as newcomers were likely to forget important details here and there. Not only could such oversights create delays in the following morning’s opening, they also posed a serious safety concern.
Until every last spark had been quelled, there was a chance, however minute, that a storm wind or a curious creature could trigger a chain of events that would result in the unthinkable. A fire out of control in the home quarter of the handsmiths would likely be put out before it caused any serious casualties, but the embarrassment to a people whose tradition claimed kinship with and responsibility for the flame would be grievous.
Willow, however, had the closing process down pat.
Both the regular journeycrafts and the Master himself seemed to know it, based on the allotment of shifts that had been constant for the last half a rev. That fact didn’t seem to work in Willow’s favor, however, because it resulted in a schedule that included both beach runs at dawn in search of a suitable coppersnail, as well as many solitary late nights shoveling the last of the smoldering greencoal into large buckets of cool water.
More than once, Willow had thought that, if the old adage were true, if sleep was indeed for the dead, it might be nice to die for a couple of hours each afternoon. But the afternoons, too, were full for any apprentice who had yet to forge a journey medallion from the shell of a hand-caught coppersnail. They were a never ending cycle of pumping bellows, fetching water, and perhaps most insultingly, hauling the furnace’s fuel whose ashes were now left to be scraped up and quelled by the very same hand. Worse still was the way that the middle-aged, middle-talented majority of the craftsmen took their position for granted.
What took them a build would have taken Willow two cycles. What they sent with the clanswomen to the fifth-market was often work that Willow would have considered completely unacceptable and thrown back into the smelter. But they were more than content to lord their titles, and coast on them, to bark, “more water, Ap!” or, “more fire, Ap!” at any unlucky apprentice who happened to be within earshot.
It was no wonder that many apprentices had defected to the inner city, taken jobs with the Doos. Particularly given the effect that the Doos Dam had created on the coppersnail population, lots of the young people from the handsmith community felt like the writing was on the wall. If a good-sized snail is necessary to advance, but no good-sized snails remain, what is there to do but move along?
Taking a chance on an unsure opportunity is certainly better than continuing to bet on one that is sure to fail. Especially if the rumors were true, that skill, productivity, and cleverness were prized by the industrial corporation. The handsmiths’ titles and tradition seemingly only served to maintain an outmoded hierarchy in which the most mediocre practitioner, because they were born in a time of bounty, held a medallion that meant they could call out to the next generation’s greatest talent, “more water, Ap!”
Willow sympathized with the defectors, the “traitors” or “weaklings” as the elder handcrafts often labeled them. But by no means were the methods of the Doos reasonable.
Even now, while forced to clean up after the clumsy old codgers who were assuredly sleeping, scraping the barely-live coals of the penultimate furnace into the douse, the low grinding frequencies of the Doos factory permeated the atmosphere. Willow remembered a time when the late nights of closing the shop were something new, something exciting, a marker of advancement toward eventual elevation to journeycraft, a time when the silence was absolute, relaxing, inspiring even. Now, there was always the subtle undertone of menace, even if inaudible, of a factory that was capable of working while the handcrafts slept, a deeply troubling, persistent rumble of disdain for tradition in the name of progress.
Still, the handsmiths’ ancestors had obtained their ferrous ore not by mining but by digging shallow trenches at regular intervals across the river that ran through their land, creating a sort of natural sluice, giving the eventual city that came to reside upon its banks near the shale rock shore its name – Ironsfed. Was that all so different from what the Doos Company had done with the river by damming it up to power their machines?
Lost in that train of thought, Willow turned toward the final furnace and nearly fainted with shock at the sudden recognition of another’s presence. The Master.
“Nearly done, are we?” came the low voice from the familiar figure, silhouetted gently by the warm orange cast of light behind him.
“Wha– uhh– whaa– um, yeah, nearly done,” said Willow, unable to conceal the surprise, “I-I just have your forge left to finish.”
Quickly shifting from panic to damage control mode, Willow continued, “You’ll see that everything is as it should be. Every last ash is in the douse, all the forgewaters are full and ready to go, I’ve even arranged the tools on every station according to the schematic. And on forge two, since it’s Faldane’s in the morning, they’re in reverse. Because he’s left-handed, and all.”
The Master chuckled audibly, “Hahaha, very good, Willow. But you needn’t treat this like an inspection. I’ve come to… talk to you. And maybe do some work of my own after we’ve finished. So, relax. You’ve done a fine job, as I’ve come to expect, and I’m not too old yet to close down my own forge. I would say to make yourself comfortable, but the amenities here aren’t exactly that, so… have a seat?”
With that, the Master gestured to one of the wooden stools that surrounded the central bench. Willow complied, with an audible sigh of relief to finally take a load off while lowering down onto the seat. After a moment of comfortable settling-in, the eyes of apprentice and Master met, and the latter continued to speak.
“Willow, I know things haven’t been easy lately. I know, in your case, they haven’t been easy ever. But you are a valued member of this community, and I.. I thought you should know that.”
“Thank you, sir;” said Willow, “I do my best to stay on top of it all. And so, if that’s all, I do have to be up with the sunlight to go make my shaleshore run with Master Clevin. There’s talk of some medallion-sizers that might have made it past the dam this week.”
The Master sighed audibly. “No, Willow, that’s not all. And as much as I of all people would like to see you catch your journey snail, what you’ve been hearing is just what you said. Talk, and nothing more. But what if there was something else for you? What if I said all the hopes of the handsmiths lie with you? “
Willow’s brow furrowed, eyes squinted, quizzically. “I..I wouldn’t know rightly what you meant by that. I wouldn’t know what you meant at all.”
“Willow, you know of course why we organize the forges the way we do; with apprentices going to works that their parents aren’t part of. Besides the fact that it’s tradition, I mean. It’s about building community, about creating bonds of kinship where there were none. But with you, with what happened to your parents… it’s been different. And if you hadn’t been so good at things, then it would have been much easier for me. Or if it had been ten revs earlier. You grab your snail. Work until you’re tired of it, smelt and forge a pair of rings with whoever you chose, and I’m a happy father-type figure. Probably even give you away at the ceremony.”
“Well, yes, who else?” Willow replied quickly, nodding vigorously.
“That’s what I mean, Willow. There’s no one else. Not for you, and not for me. I never had children, not outside of raising you in my forgeworks, and you never had parents, not since.. well.. And tradition has meant that our relationship had to remain as Master and apprentice. So I am here to ask you this, on behalf of the handsmiths, who have treated you poorly, called you names, barked orders at you.”
“Just ask, Master, and it will be done,” said Willow, eyes cast down in ritual deference.
“No, Willow, not like that. I’m not asking you as your Master. What I’m asking would see us both ostracized if it ever came to light. Your craft surpasses all of the journeys at these forges, and likely my own. I’m telling you as a friend, there are no coppers left that would see you to your appropriate station. And I’m asking you as a clansman, as family. Will you go to the Doos and petition for work? Discover their secrets and bring them back home?”
Willow’s raised eyebrows and wide open jaw were signs of the absolute amazement that hearing such a thing sent through a body, an apprentice’s body at that. The gaping silence hung so long that the Master felt compelled to continue.
“It’s said that they’ve captured the spirits, Willow. That the Edgebeader’s heat blows through their pipes as we would blow a dandelion; that Bluestaple sears punches at their command. It can’t be true. It can’t. I wish someone else could go, but there’s no one that I trust, that the Doos would trust.”
Willow’s look of amazement turned to one of despair, burying head in hands, and shaking it, trembling but intent, no, no,
“You’re our only chance, Willow. Can I count on you?”
The shaking of the head, no, no, no, slowed as tear-filled eyes raised to meet the Master’s gaze. The Bluestaple? Chained within these monsters? Grinding all night at the whim of some invader Doos? No, no… NO
“Can I count on you, Willow?”