flASH fiction: Volume 4: Iron Challenge (10)

Iron Challenge
Jason Pere

Shibon had followed the instruction of the Iron Lord and spent the previous day resting at home. She knew that the man was telling no lie when he mentioned that she would need every last bit of her physical stamina and mental acuity for the day at hand. The time away from her grinding wheel and water billows had ultimately had the opposite effect on the Rustwatch lady. A day spent with nothing but her thoughts and anxiety had been anything but relaxing. Shibon had not slept a wink. For the first time ever, the craftsman had longed for the mind numbing time suck that the menial labor of her workbench and grinding wheel offered.

She had seen the Forge many times before. Even though it was out of her way, she often deviated on her nightly return from the workshop to her home, in order to catch a glimpse of the grand place of industry and innovation. More often than not it was just an eyeful of smoke spewing form the stacks and a radiant heat form the coal inside that found Shibon on the days when she lingered outside of the forge. Every so often she might see Slate Roarkwin stepping outside for a brief respite or one of the many mastersmiths running to and fro with some important task, but for the most part the Forge was just four mundane walls, and mystery to Shibon.

Stepping inside of the Forge and inhaling the scent of molten metal and sweat was the sweet wine that Shibon had thirsted after for years. In truth she thought that she would only have her imagination and fantasies to contemplate the grandeur that was the inside of the Iron Lord’s Forge. Actually getting to set foot inside of the hollowed place was something that Shibon could never have prepared herself for. She felt like she nearly broke herself as she forced he body not to tremble while she stepped through the Forge’s main doors. This place was her church and her statuary. She was a stranger in here but in the core of her bones she knew that she had come home. For the first time in ages, standing there in the heat and glow of metal waiting to take shape the brilliant widow felt like she fit.

Shibon softly smiled to herself and she drank in the sight that lay before her. She had long wondered what the inside of the Forge looked like. She realized that her imagination had taken its liberties with her mental expectations of what lay behind the large hammer and anvil embossed doors. She wanted to pop herself in the head for being so far from the mark. The Forge was like much like anything else in the Iron Lord’s city. What made it great was not fanciful decoration or pretty shiny distractions, it’s beauty was found in function and raw efficiency.

Everything inside of the Forge served a purpose in one way or another. There was absolutely no wasted space or lost opportunities to maximize productivity. If anything could be called a trophy or decoration it would be the assortment of arms and armor in various stages of construction that littered the forge. In the far corner there was a triple tiered ballista awaiting a firing mechanism. Beside that hulking war machine there was a cannon that had been fashioned to fire balls that would splinter and fragment mid-air. In front of those two monolithic feats of engineering was a great host of blades, shields and platemail.

The building was filled with the glorious song of hammers crashing down onto glowing metal. The mastersmith’s pounded out a fierce tempo with the beat of their hammers. Shibon could see that most of the men toiling away behind their anvils were advanced in their years but they all moved with speed of men a fraction of their age. Shibon noted the focus and precision that the mastersmiths held while they worked to craft ever increasingly superior tools of warcraft. Observing the mastersmiths while they worked, Shibon felt like she had finally met tradesmen who were up to her equal.

“She is not like the workshop you are accustomed to is she?” asked Slate Roarkwin as he came up on Shibon’s flank from out of nowhere. His sudden arrival broke the trancelike state that had taken root in the woman. His eyes warmed like the soft orange of the burning embers under one of the many nearby anvils when Shibon let out a startled squeak upon his ambush.

“No, this was not what I was expecting, my lord,” she said with a deferential nod and lowering of her eyes. Shibon was silently glad for the cultural formality as it allowed her a hidden moment to try and regain her composure. Once she could no longer feel startled blood burning in her ears she looked back up and met Slate’s all too comfortable dark eyes with her own.

“So is she more or less?” asked the Iron Lord with a hungry eagerness.

“I can not say either way. I will just say that the Forge is different from what I have imagined after looking at the outside,” Shibon said in between forcibly measured breathes.

“Hum, are you ready?” Slate asked as he reflectively scratched his beard.

“That is what we are going to find out, aren’t we?” Shibon said with a perfectly deceptive look of confidence. Beneath her formidable bravado she was fighting the urge to scream like a little girl that had just awoken form a nightmare.

“We are over at my anvil. Follow me,” Slate kindly ordered his subject.

Shibon and the Iron Lord maneuvered through the Forge. The scent of hot ore, steam let off by cooling metal, the ringing of hammers striking again and again and the vocalizations of the mastersmiths as they slaved away bringing purpose to pieces of iron and steel all worked a magical spell on Shibon as she followed in Slate’s footsteps. She knew that she could lose herself in this place for hours, even days just taking in all the magnificent creation that filled the air. She had nearly forgotten her purpose at the Forge until she laid eyes on a rather dour man glowering at her from beside the Iron Lord’s personal anvil. If she had any doubts about the man’s identity, they were laid to rest the moment she saw the iron anvil pin and red sash across his shoulder.

“Forgemaster Gerwayne, this is Shibon Highbrand. She will be assisting us with the proceedings,” said the Iron Lord with a spread of his arms as he made the introduction.

“So this is the critic of my work, humph,” responded the Forgemaster. “I was expecting someone with more…bearing,” he continued with carful inflection placed on the choice word.

“It is an honor to make your introduction, Forgemaster,” Shibon said with a proper curtsey.

“Ha, you say it is an honor. After hearing your assessment of my skills, I would have thought that the last thing you would be is honored to meet me,” retorted the Forgemaster.

“Well, whatever I may feel about your…talent…behind an anvil, your position is still due respect,” Shibon said with an equally pointed inflection.

The heat from the flaming coals that lay in the Forge’s main furnace were fast growing cold by comparison to the mounting animosity between Shibon and Forgemaster Gerwayne. Thankfully, the Iron Lord defused the hostility with some well-timed misdirection. “Now that everyone is familiar, we should get to down to our purpose here,” Slate said as he moved over to an armor tree. Upon the stand hung a freshly polished suit of platemale. “Here is the latest form our Forgemaster’s anvil. Please tell me what you see here,” the Iron Lord asked of the widow craftsman.

Shibon looked over the armor. It was the standard outfit for a Rustwartch Iron Man. The suit consisted of solid steel plates held together by lengths of double mail laid over a leather gambeson. The helm, bracers, and greaves were all solid pieces of steel with leather trimming as well. The most articulated pieces of the ensemble were the gantlets. Upon the breastplate the Iron Lords personal seal was embossed but apart from that, the armor was built for practicality alone. Though possessed of modest appearance Shibon struggled to find any fault with the construction of the item.

“My lord, this looks like the usual armor worn by anyone of Rustwatch’s Iron Men,” Shibon stated.

“Anything wrong with it?” Slate Roarkwin asked.

“The construction is sound as far as I can see,” Shibon said with a tentative air. She knew that there had to be more to the issue than accessing a simple suit of armor for merits and faults

“Ha, you see, even she agrees with me…” started in the Forgemaster but he was promptly cut off by a raised hand from the Iron Lord.

“You are not wrong. This is a fine piece of armor. I would be proud to wear it myself, but it is not enough,” said Slate.

“I beg your pardon, my Lord?” Shibon queried with an arched eyebrow.

“You must know by now that the dead wagons coming back from the wilds are returning with more and more Iron Men every day. The armor I have my men clad in is not up to the task of enduring the chimera’s savagery. The beasts out there beyond the seal wall are ripping through our platemale like it is only paper. We have to do better with what comes from our anvils and protects the bodies of our fighting men and women,” Slate started with a solemn but determined cadence. He let his rough and blistered hands trace the contours on the armor as he spoke. “At least that is my positon, our Forgemaster is of another mind.”

“That is right. This is the breed of armor that has come from Rustwatch’s forge since before my grandfather’s grandfather could even pick up a hammer. This design has served our people well in countless wars and it is the panicle of armorsmithing. You can not improve upon perfection like this. Any struggles against the chimera are not to be laid on the assists of our men but the training they receive. I say our losses against the beast’s fall on the back of our Master of Arms and his training of out men…or lack thereof,” rebutted Forgemaster Gerwayne with prideful fervor.

“As you can see there is much at stake. If it is possible to build a better class of armor for our men, it a way that must be discovered and discovered soon. I am told you are one of the most ingenious and creative minds in all of my city, madam Highbrand. I believe that you are up to the challenge,” Slate said as he looked upon Shibon with timeless zeal dancing in his eyes.

Shibon felt her belly churn and her merger breakfast nearly make a second appearance all over the Forge’s floor. The full weight of one of Argaia’s great cities had just been placed upon her back and her ageing body was ill upon to the shock. In a moment her wildest fantasies and deepest fears had all been given to her in one magnificent gesture. “Thank you my Lord,” was all the Shibon was able to utter amid breathless lungs and a stampeding heartbeat.

“You will have every mastersmilth, tool and scrap of metal within my city at your beck and call. I can give you ten days to see this done,” Slate said with hopeful promise in his voice.

“Ten days, to usurp hundreds of years of craft and skill. It can not be done,” scoffed the Forgemaster under his breath.

“If you say it can not be done, then what are you here for?” asked the Iron Lord with a smirk and cross of his arms.

“I just want to watch her fail,” responded the Forgemaster with a pompous frown cast in Shibon’s direction.

The widowed craftsmen could have jumped out of her skin and kissed the arrogant man. Forgemaster Gerwayne’s insult was just the spark needed to kill all her mounting fears, put a fire in her belly and spur her hands to purpose. “Ten days, I will see you will be done, my Lord,” Shibon said with unbreakable resolve.

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