he axe handle shattered in his hands. For a moment there was silence, then a resigned breath. He would have blamed it on shoddy workmanship, but had Thorfinn believed that was the reason, he wouldn’t have come here. Valdr Njolfsson was a fine smith, and a proud man. He would not demean his skill at the forge by giving his axes poor hafts. And this was not the first tool to come apart under the intensity of his use.
Thorfinn reasoned there was enough wood for the task at hand, anyway. To his left, fresh pine logs were piled up as high as his shoulders. The fire must burn hot. And to his left, stacks of old oak. The rounds had been thicker and wider, so he had quartered them. The fire must burn long.
It was evening, and the thick, sweet smell of pine resin drifted all around him. He took a breath. Usually, when he was done with an axe, the smell was not nearly so sweet. He chuckled, reaching for his tunic, and dragging it across the sweat of his back and neck. Between his prodigious chest muscles hung a string, bearing six teeth and a circular pendant. Around his thick neck, jagged scars born of those same teeth lay, long since healed. Thorfinn had returned home as first light dawned over the steading known as Kyne’s Hollow, a steading which belonged to him and to him only. It was more village than simple steading now, for his stepfather, a trader, ran his business from there, and many retainers had settled with him, craftsmen and quillsmen, workers and writers. Most were nords, and for that, Thorfinn was grateful. He had no love for foreigners. It was to the house and smithy of one such nord he had come, without returning home or announcing his arrival.
“Do you have something against my father’s axes?” called a woman’s lilting voice, her amusement palpable. “That is the second you have broken in as many days, as I hear it told.”
“I needed an excuse to see you. What other would you have me use?” he returned, a small smile breaking out across his face. It was a half smile, nearly a grimace, but genuine.
“If you are so eager to see me, you shouldn't leave Kyne's Hollow” came her reply, though it did not carry the same amusement. He knew she had regretted that, not least because it was true.
Sigrun came to stand beside him. She was as tall as he, at the very least, and always had been. This trait had once irked Thorfinn, but as he grew older, it had quickly become something he appreciated. It displayed the green of her eyes to better advantage. Sigrun was a handsome woman.
“Father said you were wounded” she said, pushing a strand of straw-blond hair behind her ear.
“It’s nothing” grunted Thorfinn dismissively, seeing needle, thread and cloth in her hands as he turned to face her.
An eyebrow arched above one deep green eye, which travelled down his torso to the blood-stained strip of cloth which had served him as a makeshift bandage, wrapped around his upper right thigh.
“Just a scratch” he elaborated. The corners of her mouth quirked as she shook her head and knelt down on one knee. “You’ll need to remove your trews”.
It was his turn to arch his brow, and for the corners of his mouth to twitch. She glanced up, caught him smiling and promptly jammed the needle into his leg above the knee. Few a few seconds, nothing happened.
“Ouch” pronounced Thorfinn, slowly and with heavy sarcasm. She jabbed her fist toward a more sensitive area of his anatomy and he finally flinched, holding up his hands in mock surrender.
“You haven't changed much then” he chuckled as he peeled the makeshift bandage away and slipped his trews over his knees.
Sigrun cleaned away the dried blood with studied efficiency and made her first stitch before the crunch of snow underfoot alerted them to another presence.
“Oh!” spluttered the coarse voice of Valdr Njolfsson. He stopped half hidden in the darkness behind the largely naked Thorfinn and the kneeling Sigrun. “Oh, I, ah” He paused, lost for words. “I’ll just leave you two...to…” The huge smith, for whom a shield wall was just a bit of fun, spun around and fled into the night, half running, half walking through the crisp snow. The pair dissolved into helpless, breathless laughter. It was some time before Sigrun composed herself enough to complete her stitching. With that done, she bound the wound in clean linen and tied it off firmly.
“So…” began Thorfinn, drawing the word out and letting it fade into the gloom as Sigrun stood. “Your father leaped to a certain conclusion, and I’d hate for him to be wrong”.
“Put your trews back on, you great oaf” she replied.
As he bent down, Sigrun shoved him playfully, and when that proved entirely useless settled for cuffing him round the back of the head. Thorfinn rolled his eyes expressively as he stood straight again and began to stack wood from each pile in the barrow that stood beside them. She watched him for a moment, and then joined him.
“Not so many pine” he cautioned her. She snorted indelicately and dropped a log on his foot.
When the last few logs were placed securely, Thorfinn tossed his shirt on top, wheeled the barrow round and as though animated by the same mind, they began up the rise upon which the smithy was situated. He had no trouble keeping pace with her, and soon they walked in step. Their path curved round a clump of low heather and gooseberry bushes, and warm air swept over them, momentarily displacing the cold. Before them stood the forge, its fire lit and growing.
She turned to him, and with her back to the flames, her hair glowed auburn but her face was in shadow. He could not see her eyes.
“So you finally have a sword.” It was not a question. A sword was the weapon of a warrior. A spear or an axe will kill just as well, but a good sword cost the same as a piece of land. You could buy the land, and work it, and raise a family, and live and prosper. Or you could buy a sword, and with it you could earn gold and silver, honour and a reputation, and a death men would sing of. And although Thorfinn did not buy these sword, they both knew what the two blades represented.
Sigrun met his eyes, looked away and gave him a chaste kiss on the cheek, leaving him beside the forge. Already he could feel the heat across his skin. Thorfinn pushed the barrow closer and left it beside the wide, round stone pit. Valdr emerged, smudged with soot, and pushing another barrow full of charcoal.
They needed to reheat the blades, reheat them slowly and let the fire soak through till the sword glowed a bright rich orange. In its life, every blade developed tiny fractures, so small you could not see them, yet they could weaken the blade. Especially an old blade, long unused. But heat it well, and let it cool in a coating of ash, and those internal fissures would fade away and the blade was as good as new. Then they would temper it, heating it to lower temperatures and quenching it to bring the steel to the right balance of hardness and suppleness. Too hard, and the blade was brittle, prone to break, too supple, and it wouldn’t hold a killing edge.
With quiet amusement, Thorfinn explained that Sigrun had been bandaging his wound, and nothing else, to a relived Valdr. And then, to dispel the slight awkwardness, they set to work. They mixed pine and oak in balance, building the fire hot enough to boil water, and filling the pit so that the heat would be all encompassing. Then, Thorfinn produced the tallest blade. He had stripped it of its broken hilt and its rotten grip, and cleaned the long, flared blade, scraped rust from its near full length fuller, and revealed more of the patterns beneath.
The long blade was placed in the forge first, and then charcoal was mixed into the flames. Waves of heat rolled off the forge as they worked, husbanding the fire, feeding it to Valdr’s satisfaction. Thorfinn worked the bellows and the heat became so intense it was almost physical. At length, Valdr took the tang of the blade with tongs and dragged it out of the fire.
It was a dull, angry red, and only that in places. Valdr’s eyes widened, Thorfinn’s narrowed. Both men were surprised.
“That’s as hot as I’ve ever had to heat steel for this purpose” exclaimed Valdr angrily. He was angry that he had made some kind of mistake, but Thorfinn gazed at it for a long time before he shook his head.
“It’s not steel”.
Valdr could only nod in agreement.
They returned the blade and added more charcoal. Thorfinn went to get another barrow load, and then another. After a good hour they checked the blade, and they found it unchanged.
“How much hotter can you make it before the forge cracks?” asked Thorfinn. His friend paused for a moment. “Not much hotter” he admitted. “Steel melts at this heat” he said, mostly to himself. “Silver, gold, copper, bronze, even Orichalcum”.They took the blade and let it cool on the anvil, and leaving the forgefire to burn away; they left the heat and made their way to Valdr’s house. It was slightly removed from the other buildings, for he needed room for a woodpile, storehouse and charcoal mound.
Outside, they washed in freezing water and sat, sharing a half of bread and some ale. Both were wrapped up in their thoughts, the same thoughts. At length, Valdr spoke.
“Perhaps it’s enchanted. To protect the blade from harm?”
Thorfinn considered that for a moment. “How would I find out?”
“Winterhold, lad. The college is there, and fair full of learning. You could have them look at those runes, maybe they hold some secret. I fear I can be not more help to you.”
“Magic” muttered Thorfinn, his voice thick with distaste.
“Aye, and they can cast fire. Perhaps their magic fire can heat the blade through?”
It seemed a forlorn hope, but it did not seem to him that he had much choice. He stood up, finishing the ale. “Then I’ll go to Winterhold”.
Valdr looked up at him from the bench. “Now?”
“Stay and have supper with us” appealed Valdr, but Thorfinn shook his sweat flecked hair. Valdr let out a chuckle. “The wanderlust’s got you bad, Thorfinn” he mused. And then understanding came into his face, for Valdr was not a stupid man.
“You’ve already said goodbye, then.” He sounded relieved, and Thorfinn said so. The smith shrugged.
“Your father and I were like you when we were your age. We wanted glory, We wanted reputation, We wanted songs. But when I met the right woman, I settled down and learned my craft.
Thorfinn nodded absently. After a while, Valdr spoke once more, and he spoke softly, almost reverently.
“It’s been nearly ten score years since a male of your family died in bed, with his wife and children beside him. And then there are the women to consider. Your sister might be the first in a century to wield a spindle instead of a sword.”
More silence passed between them, then Valdr stood, and clapped a spark-scarred hand on his shoulder. “I’m going to check on the fire. May the road rise to meet you, and may Kyne’s breath be at your back, Thorfinn.”
As Valdr melted into the night, Thorfinn pulled on his shirt and buckled his belt. He gathered his few belongings, armor: leather and bearskin, knife and then his two swords. He wrapped them in his cloak, knotted the ends and lashed them over his shoulder. He would go east till the end of the mountains that embraced Hjaalmarch, then cross the Pale and go through the passes north to Winterhold.
Before he could take a step, he heard Sigrun's void from the doorway.
As before, he could not see her face, or her eyes. Even her bright hair was dimmed beneath the evening shadow.
“Don’t tear out your stitches”.