A Time of Change
Beorn, the Smithy
By W. P. Hall
E’mirdar Al Heywan was tired. Tired of war; tired of blood and bone and death; tired of the position he held as head of his band of renegades; and tired of the young whelps who tried to take his position from him. Perhaps, he thought, I will retire soon and go away from all this.
His practiced eye roved over the battlefield, watching his men strip the dead of weapons, armor and clothing. Tightening his cloak around himself, he wondered why battlefields always seemed so cold.
He gently urged his horse forward, stepping between bodies and parts of bodies, the hooves sometimes sinking in blood and gore. The smell of death was never something he became accustomed to, not like some of the men who were hardened to the occupation they had taken up.
Scavengers, they were called. Jackals. Ghouls and grave robbers, the so-called decent folk named them. E’mirdar Al Heywan agreed, though the decent citizens were the ones who paid dearly for these very curios of war and death.
After twenty years of taking from the dead in battle and passing the booty to any who could pay, he had nearly decided that he was beyond redemption; that his soul would rot in Hades when he finally was beaten by some youngster with more stamina and skill than himself.
He saw the body of a Holyslayer, a djuhah. Good! He thought as he waved one of his men over. The mystical robes and weapons of a djuhah would bring much gold.
It was nearly deep night, the battle over only by hours. His men went about their gruesome business quietly and sternly, using small, flaming torches for light. The light served another purpose as well. It would glimmer and shine from bright metal, whether it be sword or armor, or valuable coin.
Soon, near daylight, other soldiers would come to bury their own, and E’mirdar Al Heywan did not want to be caught out in the open by armed and trained soldiers.
Occasionally, he rode near a blob of darkness, a large body: a dead Maritkan battle beast; trained killers and skewers of Aerdian men and horses. He shook his head in wonder at the lengths men would go to murder one another.
They had been fortunate to be so near the battlefield. Generally, it took some longer to arrive and sometimes he was beaten to the take by other, smaller bands of scavengers. But not this time. This time the take would be his and he would split the profits evenly amongst his men. The peace was better kept that way.
His horse stopped, as if on command, but E’mirdar Al Heywan had not given the command; only hesitated in his reverie to keep the horse moving. He looked down upon the body of a young, blonde lad, clad partially in fine chain-mail. There was no obvious mortal wound, but the blue eyes were wide open in death, on a face of innocence. The boy’s arms were bare with old burn scars and his hands were large; and callused by something other than the sword.
Not more than 16 years, he thought. And a hard working lad. How does one so young end up on the battlefield? Who allows this to happen?
Yes, E’mirdar Al Heywan was ready to quit, to take his money and go on a long trip. Someplace where young men and women do not die before they have even realized what life is about.
Away from war, and blood and bone and death.
* * *
A few days earlier:
“Things were not like this in the old days!” Beorn wielded the heavy sledge, the muscles in his bare right arm rippled as he swung down on the hot steel. “In the old days, we took care of our weapons; did not depend on someone else to repair a chipped blade.” He reached up to pull down on the handle that pulled on the chain that was threaded through the rafters and then down to the giant bellows. “Got to keep the forge hot,” he muttered as he rammed the blade into the hot coals.
“No sir, by Gad we honed out our own chips and notches.”
Beorn spoke to no one, save perhaps the horses out behind the shop in the stable waiting to be re-shoed. They never talked back.
“Blasted so-called knights these days.” He pulled the blade out and pounded on it a few more times, then held it up to inspect his repair job. “Don’t make steel like they used to, neither, by Gad! But, not so bad a job at that.” Pleased with himself and his repair, he dipped the hot steel into a bucket of water. Steam hissed out as the metal cooled. He held the sword at eye level to inspect for warp. Finding none, he set the blade aside and picked up another from the handful that remained to be repaired.
“If I could get some decent help around here…” He mumbled, griping about the apprentice situation. “Seems like nobody wants an honest profession anymore. All those young lads want is to become soldiers. Bravery and glory, they say. Huh! More like blooding and goring when you get right down to it. Half of them would faint dead away at their first sight of blood, ‘specially if it happens to be their own.”
He chuckled at the thought of his first apprentice, Seoman, paling and collapsing at the first scratch from any sword training he might take. He was already pale. Like most Aerdites, Seoman was blonde and fair, but taller than Beorn himself had been at the same age. Surprising that the lineage stayed so pure, since the merging of Aerd and Maritka had brought so much new blood into the country. But, like always and everywhere, prejudice and bias ran rampant and folks mostly stayed to their own kind.
As if thinking of the lad had somehow summoned him, Seoman ran into the shop, out of breath and excited.
“Sergeant of the Guard Ellisius says if I finish my work on time, he will finish my sword training tonight!”
Beorn paused in his work. “And I say, if you finish your work, there will be more work! And what do you mean by ‘finish’?”
Seoman reddened and hung his head. “I have been secretly taking lessons, master. I should have told you, but I feared you would stop me.”
Beorn had suspected such, but knew better than to stop him. Though he was not one to show open affection, Beorn thought of Seoman as a son, for he had never had one and Seoman’s own father had been killed in battle several years earlier.
The boy would be a soldier, like his father, and none would stand in his way.
Beorn went back to his hammering, speaking between strokes. “What’s done is done. There’s plenty of mounts need new shoes. If you plan to finish this day, I suggest you start soon.”
Surprised by Beorn’s reaction, Seoman grinned and ran to the back, grabbing a hammer and a handful of horseshoes and exiting to the stable area. By Gad, the boy is stubborn.
“And where is the rest of my help?” Beorn yelled after him.
“On the way!” Seoman answered without pause.
* * *
By the time Beorn’s other three apprentices showed up, it was late afternoon. He was tired and did not relish the thought of directing the energies of four young boys who would rather be brandishing wooden swords at each other.
“Gather ’round here, lads.” He waved his arms in a circling gesture. “Since it’s so late in the day, we’ll get a fresh start tomorrow.”
Various cheers went up among the four fair fellows.
“Before you run off, listen! You, Gadner! You grew up on a farm, yes? Good, then the stock won’t be afraid of you. I want you here before the sun on the morrow and cleaning the stable.”
“Seoman, if you live through your lessons tonight, you can finish the shoeing, and your friend Hadric there can help you.”
He turned to the fourth boy. “What’s your name, lad? I feel as though I know you, but don’t recall ever meeting you.”
“I am Dagron, master.”
“Dagron…Dagron.” Beorn mused. “I once knew another Dagron; a fine fellow and a grand warrior. Could you be named for him?”
The boy reddened and his eyes watered up. “The warrior Dagron was my father, master.”
Unexpectedly, Beorn found himself on the verge of tears. “You should be proud boy! Your father was my friend and one of the finest fighters I’ve seen. And I’ve seen plenty! Tomorrow, you help me with the weapons and armor. Now, run lads! Go play your soldier games, for tomorrow you work!”
They ran off laughing and cheering, thrusting and parrying in the air with imaginary swords.
Beorn watched only for a moment, then shut the doors of the shop and headed down the street. He was ready for a pint, and no doubt. Perhaps several would do. If for no other, a toast to his bygone friend Dagron would be a good reason, by Gad!
* * *
There were several pubs that had known Beorn’s presence, and often, but The Troughwater Allotment was his favorite as well as the favorite of a few of his old friends. He entered the dark cavern of a room and sat himself down on a stool that was once a keg of brew, and yelled at the hostler: “A pint of stout, Barstow, and keep the foam!” The man managed an obscene salute before Beorn yelled again: “Make it two! I’m a thirsty fellow this day!”
“And when has it ever happened that you’ve never been?” A voice called out to him, and the owner of the voice sauntered over.
“So this is where you hold sway over your charges is it, Sergeant of the Guard Ellisius?” The hostler showed up with two tankards. “Thank you, Barstow. You are a gentleman and an intellectual.” Barstow pursed his lips, and sent a rude noise Beorn’s way.
“Aye, so it is.” Ellisius answered Beorn’s question as if they had not been interrupted. “At least for today. And can you blame me, after all I’ve been through?”
“Are you still feeling sorry for yourself because of the battle? That was nigh on twelve years ago, my friend.” Beorn took a long swallow of ale. “Don’t you think it’s time to put it away and get on with things?”
“’Tis not me I’m feeling for, Beorn. ‘Tis the young lads I led into battle who never came back. And the young lads my boys are training, as we speak, who will never come back. P’raps you’re right. Maybe it’s time to move on.” He drained his cup and signaled for another.
“Aye.” Beorn said nostalgically as he glanced around the big room. There were a few soldiers and a few townsmen. “The lads do seem to be younger and younger. My own apprentices are anxious to go to war. And all the hideous stories we could tell will not change their minds.”
“True enough, ’tis. But, we all have our jobs to do what with the Holyslayers and the Janissaries joining in every battle. Used to be enough just to fight ordinary soldiers, men like you and me. All I can do is see that they get the best short term training there can be, for there’s no time for any else.”
“Aye. Battle has changed there’s no doubt. Were I still capable – with these old bones – of going into battle, I would have the need to analyze my senses.” Beorn drained one tankard and started on the other. He happened to glance over in the corner and saw Pebe, once friend and comrade, now beggar in the streets.
Talk turned to fondly remembrances as they drank. Reminiscents of common friends long dead; battles fought and won, rumors and tall tales.
“To fallen comrades!” Beorn held his drink aloft. “Fallen comrades!” They both drained their cups and slammed them down on the table.
“Teach them well, Ellisius!”
“The best that can be taught.” Ellisius replied. “And you, Beorn, give us sharp and sturdy weapons!”
With a strong handclasp, they parted, each going a different way.
* * *
For the next three days, Beorn and his apprentices worked hard; repairing and sharpening swords, daggers and spurs; shoeing horses; hammering out dents in helmets and repairing broken links in chain mail; checking and repairing axles and metalworks on supply wagons, and links, bits and rivets on harness and saddle.
On the third night, Beorn had the boys stand in a half circle in front of him as he produced an armload of weapons from beneath an old horse blanket.
He approached each boy, one at a time, and presented him with a finely wrought leather belt, with sword and scabbard on one side and long dagger and sheathe on the other. The boys’ mouths gaped in wonder and surprise as each pulled out his sword and examined the keen sharpness and the praiseworthy metalwork. Finally, Beorn presented each with a coat of mail; fine links joined closely to divert and deflect sharp weaponry, and instill confidence in its wearer.
“By my own hands I have wrought these weapons for you lads, in the hope that having the best in your hands might save your lives.”
He shook hands with each one. When he came to Seoman, he took his hand and pulled him into an embrace.
“You be careful out there, lad.” He spoke softly into Seoman’s ear. “Don’t do anything stupid, and always protect your backside.”
He let the boy go, slapping his shoulders as he did so, trying not to let Seoman see the tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.
He turned to the other boys.
“I want to see every one of you back here for work as soon as you have routed the enemy! And be quick about it! Is that understood!”
They all shouted understanding and agreement with laughter and cheering. Then they trooped out the door to go and say their good-byes to friends and family. The boys were off to war.
Beorn watched them walk away, wondering if he would ever see them walking back.
He watched the parade of knights, archers, pikemen and wagons go out the next morning. He stood by the open doors of the smithy shop, sipping from a jug he had purchased the night before from Barstow, the hostler of The Troughwater Allotment. He felt no need to work today, but a strong need to drink.
He watched as the King Ginse rode side by side at the head of his army with the Crown Prince Mair; then the cavalry with their guidons and lances. The foot soldiers next; pikemen first, then archers, then swordsmen. Among the last, he saw Seoman and his three friends, Dagron, Gadner and Hadric. Though the four did not acknowledge Beorn’s presence, they grinned hugely as they walked past, proudly wearing their new weapons and armor and wanting Beorn to know it.
The tears ran freely as Beorn drank deeply from the jug, then turned and entered the shop.
* * *
“What news, Frake?” He yelled as the messenger, who was known to him, slowed his mount to stop near Beorn. Perhaps the jug the smithy proffered caused Frake to pause in his haste to achieve the palace to give the royal family news of the status of army, and more importantly, news of the king and prince.
“The armies gather!” He gasped out as he finished a long pull at the jug. Beorn noticed Frake had a bandage on his leg. He nodded toward it.
“Ran into some forward scouts, and they managed to put a groove in my thigh with an arrow. Seems the enemy doesn’t want news of the army to get out, or reinforcements sent for before the battle even begins, though what reinforcements there would be I would not know.” He smiled, then took another drink. “I managed to outrun them, though.”
“A favor, Frake. Should you see any of my apprentices out there, tell them….” What could he possibly tell them that he had not already? Beorn nodded sadly. “Never mind, friend. But if you do see them, and manage your way back, stop here again.” He nodded at the jug. “Take it with you. I’ll have another ready for next time.”
Gratefully, Frake stoppered the jug and stuffed it into a saddlebag, then mounted and spurred the horse down the street.
If there is a next time, Beorn thought.
His sleep that night was restless, filled with battle, blood and faces of fallen friends.
A voice whispered in his ear: “Since you and Ginse are old friends, here is news. The Queen Rowan has died this night.”
Beorn sat up, thinking this more than a dream. He saw a shadowy figure moving away and out a window, it’s hunched shape brought images of fiends and demons; or perhaps something else. He knew who it was, but had never reckoned the man’s purpose.
When his heartbeat slowed, he lay back down and was soon asleep. Only another nightmare after all, he thought in his dream state.
* * *
The morning dawned wet, and people stayed off the streets for the mud. Beorn waited patiently just inside the doors of the smithy, sipping on his jug with another full one standing by his feet, for there would be no business. He considered his position. Perhaps it was time to quit this blacksmith business; move someplace where young men aren’t sent out to die before they have tasted life; somewhere warm where he could set up a kiosk and sell fruit. Everyone needs fruit. He was a hero once, but no one needs an old hero hanging around. He would hate to end up like Pebe, a beggar in the streets.
Toward evening, Frake rode into town, horse’s hooves spraying mud. He slid off the horse quickly, as if he had little time to spare.
“What news, Frake?”
“The battle goes well, Beorn, but the prince has been killed!”
“Mair killed? That is bad news.” Beorn said, but thought: There will be chaos in the royal house this day. “But if I know Ginse at all, I know he will now fight like never before!” he added.
“Aye, true enough.” Frake tipped the jug Beorn handed him. “I surely do thank you for the freshener. Throat gets mighty dry riding hard like I have.”
“Take the full one with you, friend. I’ll have another for next time. Any news of my apprentices?”
“Aye. I asked around just before I left. I found Dagron. He said Hadric had fallen, but he had no knowledge of Gadner or Seoman. He last saw Seoman well, but he was lost to his sight as the battle raged.”
“Thank you, friend. Tomorrow, then?”
“As long as the Queen does not kill the bearer of bad news tonight.” Frake mounted and sped off.
Hardly likely, by Gad! Beorn thought, suddenly remembering the image of the dark intruder the night before.
Hadric fallen, Beorn thought. Dead. Gadner missing. Probably dead as well. Dagron and Seoman well, as of this afternoon. Anything could have happened. Better I had no news than late news.
He shuffled off down the street to The Troughwater Allotment. Perhaps he could cadge a free drink for the news of the death of the Prince.
* * *
The sunshine the next morning brought memories of battles past to Beorn as he awaited the messenger, Frake. Memories of fighting back to back with Ginse, two mighty warriors piling up bodies of the foe at their feet.
Blood splattering their faces and clothing; sweat running freely inside the leather and metal that they wore for whatever protection it provided; sword hilts slippery with sweat and the blood of their enemies.
Would that the lads could live to have such memories, as hideous as they may be. But one, Hadric, was already gone.
The morning was nearly gone when a messenger, not Frake, rode through town yelling: “The battle is won! The King victorious! The battle is won! The King victorious!” On down the street.
Then, the first soldiers appeared in the distance
There was Ginse, riding at the head of his army, or what was left of it, his head low, downcast. Fully two-thirds fewer soldiers made up the victory parade; only a few horses, and a disorganized band of tired, bloody and dirty men and boys. No, just men, for any boys that lived through battle now deserved to be called men.
As they tramped past the smithy, Beorn kept his eyes sharp, looking at drawn faces, bandaged faces, for any sign of recognizable features.
There! Was that Seoman? No, only another blonde, fair – complected man.
As the ragtag band passed by, Beorn saw none of his apprentices. Not one.
All dead, he thought. Not one survived. What good did all the training do, and all the best equipment? And Frake had not passed by so he, too, must be dead.
He was about to give up and go to the pub once again to drink himself into any kind of oblivion he could find, when another group of men showed themselves. Lagging way behind, Beorn could see why. They were the walking wounded. Those that could carried their comrades on spans of blankets stretched between poles. Others used crutches, or helped one another with an arm about a waist.
There! It was Dagron! Walking with the aid of a crutch, one leg bandaged from thigh to ankle; a dirty, bloody rag wrapped around his head. Dagron, son of a warrior.
Beorn walked out to meet him. When Dagron spotted him, he fell into his embrace and cried, long and loud.
Beorn held him close and let him get it out. He understood, for he had cried for his fallen comrades and his own self-pity more times than he wanted to remember.
When Dagron had finished, and only spasms of his heartbreak remained, they stood alone in the street, in the dark.
Dagron looked up at Beorn.
“Hadric?” Beorn asked.
Dagron just shook his head.
“Fallen, master. Bravely.”
Beorn knew the answer to the next, though he had to ask.
“Seoman?” Another son of another warrior.
Tears once again formed in Dagron’s eyes. “Fallen, master Beorn. He took many with him, including a djuhah. You should be proud.”
Proud. Am I proud? He asked himself. Or sadly disgusted that this war took so many young lives?
“Yes.” He said through his emotions. “I am proud, of all of you. And thankful that you came back, Dagron.” He hugged the boy once again.
Time to move on?
His apprentices dead, all but one. His friend Frake, dead. The Prince, dead and the Queen, dead by her own hand.
Yes, by Gad! Time to move on.
“Dagron, how would you like to see a different part of the world?”
* * *
The man was big and muscular. Black hair held back behind his head in a horsetail. Shirt open at the throat. Chest and arms powerful, rippling. A young man.
E’mirdar Al Heywan knew the look on the man’s face. It was to be a challenge. Another challenge in the long years of his leadership. Obviously, he had never lost, but had come close too many times.
Perhaps this is to be my retirement, he thought as he drew his two-handed sword and stepped up to meet the challenge. Perhaps it is too late to move on, away from all the bloodshed, all the carnage.
They met in a clash of steel! His ears rang with the blows and he knew at once that the young man had the advantage in strength. After a couple of parries, he also knew that he, E’mirdar Al Heywan, had the advantage in experience; if he could hold out, outlast in stamina if not strength.
He swung the heavy weapon in a beheading stroke that the younger man barely parried. Then, a quick riposte ripped a gash in his left arm. He backed up a step to examine the cut. The challenger did the same, a sign of courtesy and honor.
First blood to the young man, E’mirdar Al Heywan thought. But, perhaps not last blood.
They met again, and he saw a weakness in the left arm of the young man. He had a strong stroke from the right, but from the left there was less strength, less power. That means, E’mirdar Al Heywan thought with self-encouragement, that his left arm is weaker than his right.
A quick series of strikes left him little time for thought. He had yet to draw blood from the challenger and he was tiring. Vaguely, through the pounding of the blood at his temples, he could hear the men making side bets. He briefly and surprisingly wondered what odds he was getting.
Then, there it was: The strike from the challenger’s left side. E’mirdar Al Heywan parried, then tried a trick that had saved his life a number of times.
As the young man’s blade slid down to the hilt of his sword, E’mirdar Al Heywan twisted sharply, catching the blade under the crosspiece that protected his hands. A quick upward thrust toward the weak arm, and the challenger’s sword fairly flew from his hand.
Disarmed and dismayed, the young man knew his end was near. He knelt before E’mirdar Al Heywan, asking for but not expecting, mercy. Tears were still flowing from the man’s eyes as E’mirdar Al Heywan separated his head from his shoulders.
Cheering went up from his men as they paid or collected on their bets, and he collected his breath.
No, he thought. It is not time to move on. I am still the E’mirdar, the chief. And I am still the Heywan, the beast, the bear.
I shall not pity the poor young men who go to battle, not even the blonde lad lying there with his sightless blue eyes.
Someone should have kept the boy at home.