flASH fiction: Volume 4: Back to Nothing (26)

 

Back to Nothing
By
Jason Pere

Shibon could feel the jarring sensation of the grinding wheel against the broadsword’s blade rattling her bones. She had put a fresh edge on more weapons than she could ever hope to count. After he first year in the workshop she was numb to the discomfort brought on by hours of endless grinding at her workbench. Her physical obliviousness that came with the thoughtless work was a deep asset and allowed her some respite from the arthritis starting to take root in her fingers. Today her hands hurt like she had laid her bare knuckles on the grinding wheel and spun it as fast as she was able.

The Rustwatch widow was more aware of her present situation than ever before. It was nigh impossible for Shibon to get out of her own mind. Her thoughts were a cell of regret and all she was able to do day in and day out since her armor had failed the Iron Lord’s challenge was search for the reason that her platemail had been found wanting. It was a fruitless hunt and Shibon replayed the events of that glorious fortnight over and over in her imagination. She had never created anything as magnificent as what she had produced at the Iron Lord’s personal anvil. Her craft was sound. There was no good reason that her armor should have failed in something as forgiving as exhibition combat.

Since returning to the workshop, Shibon had hoped that she could slip back into the familiar drone of triviality that filled her life day after day. The blast from the stack whistle had barely finished sounding the day after the fight at the Iron Mens’ barracks when she realized that she would never be able to completely go back to the way her life was before Slate Roarkwin had puked her out of obscurity. In a grand act of cruel benevolence the Iron Lord had given Shibon a taste of what it was to truly work metal and create something of worth. Such a flavor was instantly addictive and Shibon had an appetite that could only be sated by the drum of a hammer’s beat and the feel of hot coals scorching her forearms. The Iron Lord’s challenge to find a new breed of armor for his soldiers had been a failure and Shibon was an unintentional casualty of that folly. She had been on a path that led to a place where she could be a true force of industrial revolution in Rustwatch but now she was returned to menial labor and a hollow dispassionate vocation, like nothing had ever happened.

The grinding wheel came to a stop as Shibon finished refurbishing the blade she was working on. She lightly ran her thumb down the side of the weapon. It was perfectly sharp. If she put any pressure on it at all, her skin would be laid open. Shibon tested the tip of the broadsword and in a moment of self-piteous masochism she pushed down. The pain flashed only for a moment before being replaced by regret. She was able to stop herself form succumbing fully to the foolish notion but not before she had a few droplets of her blood mark the blade from the prick on her thumb.

“Stupid girl,” Shibon mumbled to herself. She tossed the broadsword away and let it clatter down the towering pile of arms on the side of her workbench. She scoffed at the mountain of reconditioned arms. Shibon looked at the freely flowing cut on her thumb and shook her head in defeat. She placed her thumb in her mouth and pressed the slit in her skin against her tongue.

As Shibon made an attempt to quell the bleeding on her hand she looked about the darkened workshop. The lanterns were burning low and seemed to have been untended for some time now. She had clearly missed the end of shift blast from the stack whistle. It would not be the first time that her anger and regret had deafened her since returning to the workshop. Her body was aching and near broken, a limitless sea of damaged weapons spread out before her, and she was confined to a cutting solitude in the lightless workshop but the prospect of returning home was dreadful to Shibon. The last thing she wanted was to be alone with her thoughts and a pair of hands that had nothing to occupy them.

The widow took her thumb from her mouth to inspect the cut. It was no longer bleeding as bad as it had been when she first opened herself up but it was going to need at least one night’s rest before she could hope to effectively work her grinding wheel again. “Stupid girl,” she said through tightly clenched teeth.

“Excuse me, Madam Highbrand?” came a voice in the darkened workshop’s main floor.

Shibon pulled her focus from her irritating wound and tried to make out the face of the speaker. All her weary eyes could discern was a solid looking silhouette cast in the fading lantern light. She could not tell if the unknown visitor knew where she was. A wise and fearful part of her kept her from responding to the man’s inquiry. She silently observed the unrecognizable man from the upper deck of the workshop.

“Shibon Highbrand, are you here?” asked the shadowed figure once more. He stepped into one of the few remaining rays of lantern light and revealed his face.

It took a moment for Shibon to make the connection but after a split-second of surprise washed over her she leaned out from her perch overlooking the main floor and called out. “Yes, Captain Stonehold. I am here,” she said with a voice that was equally as tentative and warry as the Iron Men officer’s speech. She started to make her way down to where the Captain was standing.

“I apologize for the late hour. I heard that you might still be here and I wished to speak with you,” said the Captain in a kind and tender voice that belied his stern and chiseled exterior features.

Seeing the man who had worn her armor and championed her work in the contest against the Foragemaster’s platemail caused Shibon’s mouth to go as dry as the Gobi desert. “No Captain. I think if anyone is to offer an apology it is me,” she said with a measure of grief.

“Whatever for madam?” responded the Captain with confusion.

“The armor I made for you was less than. I have no business working an anvil. You took quite a beating and I feel responsible for it,” she said like she was cutting off a piece of her own body.

While it was dark in the workshop it was easy to see the look of astonishment that rushed over Gerard Stonehold’s being. “You have nothing to apologize for. Especially not when it comes to your skill with armorsmithing. In fact that is my reason for seeking you out,” he said with a zealous respect in his voice.

“What could I possibly do for you?” Shibon asked.

“Madam Higbrand, I have been a solider all my life. I have worn every class of armor available in this city and I can say without contest that the platemail you forged for me was the greatest armor I have ever worn. I admit that I was bested in combat against Sergeant Tallhammer but I promise you it had nothing to do with your armor,” said the Captain. He fervently took a few steps towards Shibon as he spoke but he managed to maintain his military discipline and keep a respectful distance from the woman. “My brigade is soon to deploy. I would beg of you to let me wear the armor you made for me. An Iron Man needs every available tool in order to survive the wilds. I will not see my wife cut her hair or see my daughters half orphaned when I come back on one of the wagons.”

Shibon was thrown. Her hand shot up to her head as her vision blurred for a moment. The long day of toiling behind a grinding wheel and punctuated with more high compliments then she had enjoyed in three seasons past all at once nearly put her on the floor. “Captain, thank you for your words. But I could not give you the armor I made, even if I wanted to,” she said mournfully. She could see a protest mounting in Gerard’s driven eyes but before he could give voice to his objections she continued. “The Forgemaster had it melted down for scrap the day after the exhibition.” She recalled witnessing the painful experience. Though she was not a mother and likely never would be, seeing her creation return to the fire from where it came was the closest thing she could imagine to losing a child.

The Captain grimaced as though he had just been pieced by enemy steel. “Madam, I know I have no right to ask this of you but could you forge another suit. After wearing the armor made by your hand, I can not bring myself to wear any other kind.”

“I have no anvil or access to the forge. I am already forgotten by the Iron Lord and the Forgemaster has never held any favor for me. Even if I wanted to craft new armor for you, I could not,” Shibon said like she was suffocating. She saw that her words were falling on deaf ears and that the Captain was a man driven by the will to survive whatever terrors awaited in the wilds. She decided that a change of tactics would be in order. “What is more, were you brigade commander to see you in non-regulation platemail, you would be flogged bloody at best.”

Captain Stonehold looked about dubiously and stepped boldly forward into arms reach of Shibon. He kept his voice low as he spoke, as if he feared even the void of night might overhear and betray his confidence. “Madam Highbrand, I am sure you know that soldiers talk. I am also not the only Iron Man who wishes to return home to his family on his own legs and not laid out on a dead wagon. My brigade commander is the man who sent me here. I am not only pleading for myself but many other of my brothers in arms. We would wear your armor proudly if you would craft it for us.”

“I do not have the means…” Shibon gasped feeling pride and defeat mixing into a noxious disorienting cocktail within her gut.

“Yes you do. The officers in my brigade have acquired an anvil and workspace for you. If you have the will to smith, we will provided you with the means,” whispered the Captain.
“If the Iron Lord or the Forgemaster were to find out…” Shibon started but was swiftly interrupted.

“They will not and if they do then we care not,” said the man fervently. He drew in a deep reflective breath and continued with a weighted exhale. “We are asking you, pleading with you to protect us as we go to battle the chimera. You and you alone can help many Iron Men come home to Rustwatch alive.”

Shibon twirled her long braid in her fingers as she battled internally, torn between compassion and anxiety. “How many men need outfitting and when do you deploy?” Shibon asked. As much as she felt fear crying to freeze her still she thought of the families of the men and women Captain Stonehold was advocating for. She knew what it was to see the cold lifeless face of a loved one carried home on a dead wagon. She wished that nightmare for no one ever.

“Many and soon,” said the Captain.

“I will need more than an anvil and workspace if I am to undertake this,” Shibon said with acceptance in her voice.

“You will have everything you ask for. I will meet you here in the morning before the stack whistle sounds and bring you to your anvil. Thank you Madam Highbarnd,” said the Captain before turning and fading into the shadows that filled the workshop.

Shibon stood unmoving as a boulder in the lightless room. Her mind spun like a top as did her heart. She had been cast from one impossible task into the next. The weight of it threatened to crush her. She nearly screamed from the looming challenge laid out before her but then a pair of words the Captain had spoken flew threw her mind and suddenly placed a massive smile on her dry and chapped lips. “My anvil,” said Shibon, repeating the words with adoration. She left the workshop for her home and proceed to enjoy the most wondrous sleep she had known in years.

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