Miteus knelt before the great statue of Banthos the Builder. Standing nearly ten times as tall as a man, carved from granite and clad in finest steel, it was a likeness as close to befitting a God as man could muster. In one hand he held the world, and in the other he held Thenrir, the mighty hammer with which he built all things. He almost filled the inside of the temple, a great block of stone and iron that people throughout the kingdom knew as the Anvil. At his feet, before the Iron Altar, the Crafters swung their hammers in perfect time, every few seconds the ring of steel on steel echoed from the ceiling and walls. The blade they worked was glowing hot down its entire length, kept hot by two teams of four apprentices working bellows below the floor. The sword was as wide as a man and at least twice as long as a man was tall. It looked as though it were the right size for the statue to wield, although the blade would never make a good weapon in truth. It would be melted down and reforged in nineteen days time, as it always was.
The Master Crafter stood before the altar, clad in ceremonial steel armour and reading from an iron tablet. He had broad shoulders and stood a mere four feet in height, his squat appearance mirroring that of the statue. He was of the Mountain Folk, and Miteus could see his kin dotted around the temple. Whereas their hair and beards, in a thousand shades of orange, amber and brown, were uneven and messy, the Master Crafter’s black hair and beard were straight and smooth, and his voice filled the cavernous space with righteous resonance.
Miteus looked around at the other worshippers and pilgrims. He saw a handful of lesser Lords in his immediate vicinity, none of whom he could name. Around them were common folk, smiths and carpenters formed the core of Banthos’ followers, but there were farmers too, and guards, soldiers and even knights, men who trusted the strength of steel. They wore their armour with silent humility, their weapons at their sides. Every one of them had in their hand a piece of metal.
Miteus looked to his own, a piece of armour plate deformed from heat. When he had learned that the Forging was today, he had insisted on attending.
The King will wait, the Gods will not.
His words still rang in his memory. He had lost good men on the way here, he had to make an offering, not matter how small it was. He turned his attention back to the sermon.
“…and Stavien stood at the crossing of Martoch, ten thousand men at his back. But there were three-and-fifty thousand men against them, and the King’s men knew fear in their hearts. And Stavien turned to his men and said to them ‘Know not fear, know only faith and the strength of your steel.’”
The Master Crafter paused and the temple rang with the chorus of the audience.
“Stone and steel!”
“Stavien did not fear, for he knew in his heart the strength of Banthos, he who built the world. And he knew the power of Banthos in this world. He called the name of the Ironkind, and in one breath brought them to his command. And the King’s men knew the strength of their steel, and the enemy felt their armour crack, their shields fall and their blades turn to rust.”
The story was familiar to Miteus, Stavien the White was one of the few champions of the Gods whose life and deeds were almost universally accepted fact, although the Guild of Reverence never settled on whether he could have performed the miracles attributed to him. It was common for a Forging to be accompanied by a tale of one of Banthos’ earthly champions, normally carrying a message of the power of faith and the strength of steel. Miteus let the words wash over him as he watched the men beat the steel into shape, joining the rest of the congregation when they replied to the Master Crafter’s pauses with chants of “Stone and steel.”
After what felt like hours the crafters poured buckets of water over the blade. The sermon ended with the hiss of boiling water, before the great sword was attached to chains and raised slowly above their heads. It would hang there for three days and three nights before it was melted down again.
Miteus waited in silence as the common folk walked solemnly to the front to offer their gifts of iron, steel, bronze and brass. The crafters thanked each man for his offering before carrying them individually down below the floor of the temple. They would be forged into blessed armour and sacred blades, placed in the hands of devout knights and sent around the kingdom in Banthos’ name. Perhaps, in a few years, after countless forgings, the metal would find its way into the great blade. After the common folk had received their blessings and left the temple, the knights and smiths took their turn to present their offerings. The lesser lords followed, and finally Miteus made the journey to the Iron Altar. The Master Crafter appeared to have been waiting for him.
“My most Noble Lord Whetherhall.” The Crafter began. “It is such a rarity to have such high nobility in my Congregation. Have you brought an offering for the forge?”
“I have, Master Crafter.” Miteus replied, presenting the deformed armour. “It is but a small piece of plate, but it was worn by a good knight, a friend, when he passed.”
“A man who meets his end with steel in his hand will find strength in the next life. We are all but tools with which the Builder shapes the world, and as all tools, we wear and break.”
“He died for his duty, I would wish to aid his passing to the Builder’s Hall in whatever way I can.”
“Of course, my Lord. Simply speak his name, and it shall be sung to the ring of the hammers. We shall forge a blade in his name, so that the world may know his strength again.”
“Stone and steel, Master.”
“And by stone and steel I bless you.” The Crafter replied, touching his finger to Miteus’ armour in five places marking the points of a star. “His name shall be put to a blade, and its deeds shall be his deeds. Just as it was with Viscarus.”
The name awoke a deep and painful memory in Miteus, and he struggled to keep his expression calm.
“My apologies, my Lord. I forget that there are some wounds that do not heal.”
“There is no need to apologise, Master. It has been many long years, if I cannot speak of him now I never will. Did you know him?”
“Only as a Master knows his followers. I presided over his Ringforging. He was the strongest and most devout Swordbearer I have ever known. If there was any he loved so much as the Builder, it was you.”
“He was definitely most devout.” Miteus chuckled. “He spent so much time kneeling at the Iron Altar below Castle Artella we thought his knees would turn to steel. But you are right, there was never a stronger man. There is not a day goes by where I would not change places with him.”
“Do not dwell on what was not to be, my Lord. The Builder shapes all things of this world, and the hottest fires forge the strongest blade. Your brother is still here, when news reached us of his passing we sang his name and forged a great-axe. His Nameblade has spent these last eight years shaping the world in the Builder’s Name.”
“Danwier Atchury.” Miteus said after a brief pause. “The name of my fallen friend. Sir Danwier Atchury.”
The Master Crafter nodded once, raising the piece of steel in his hand. “We shall sing his name.”
“Thank you.” Miteus said as he turned to leave.
“May the Builder’s strength flow through you.” The Master Crafter called out to him.
“And through you.” Miteus replied.
Miteus found his party standing ready on the Godsroad, accompanied by two ox carts loaded with barrels and crates. His horse was saddled awaiting him. As he mounted, Sir Denton spoke to him.
“All present save for two, my Lord.”
“Who is missing?” Miteus asked.
“One of the archers and Sir Allian, my Lord.”
“Yes, my Lord. We have sent men to find him since first light, but none have succeeded.”
“I do not like this. It is not in his nature to vanish, leave two men behind to continue the search. Have them find him and catch up to us as soon as they are able. We are still two days’ good riding from the capital.”
“It shall be done. There is also a matter of four… individuals… who wish to join our party.”
“What do you mean?” Miteus replied.
Sir Denton made to reply but was cut off by a stranger mounted on a powerful jet black horse. He was a large man, heavily built and clad in studded leather and mail. Across his back he had a two-handed war hammer, and his face could have made sculptors envious with its square features, complimented by the odd scar and long locks of wavy golden hair. He had the stench and bravado about him that could only be attributed to one of the many self-styled heroes of the kingdom. Some heroes were men who birthed the great legends Miteus was told as a boy, but most were little more than presumptuous sell-swords, and the man before him was almost certainly the latter.
The man extended a strong hand and introduced himself.
Miteus could say this much for Yonjon, he had the voice to suit a hero.
“And these are my associates.” Yonjon continued as he turned and gestured to a brown-and-red robed Wizard, a boy no older than twelve and a woman. “Introducing the Adventurers Three.”
He went around each of them and made introductions. The boy was Lonjon, his son and squire, a scrawny thing who looked like a breeze could snap him in half, but there was definitely a resemblance.
The Wizard was Wise Hanlou, a man who looked too young to be a graduate of the Order of the Veil and member of the Infernus Arcanum, the Order’s brotherhood of fire mages. His ginger hair and beard were short and scorched, and his hat and robes had seen better days, but he did retain the overall appearance of a wizard.
The woman was Jaqulin Khanan, and despite her studded leather attire and the dirt of the road Miteus thought she was rather beautiful. She carried a longbow on her back and a short sword at her side.
“We are riding as far as Stand.” Yonjon continued. “And thought that if we rode together we would find ourselves the safer.”
Miteus managed to hide his distaste. “Thank you, but I do not think we shall have need of your aid.”
“When was the last time you travelled the Godsroad?” Yonjon asked. He continued when Miteus didn’t deign to answer. “These days it’s not as sacred as it once was. You’ll find bandits and worse between here and Nysilla, and although my friends and I can look after ourselves, we wouldn’t feel right leaving a Lord to fend for himself.”
Miteus remained silent. Yonjon filled the silence with yet more words.
“Well, we’ll be making our way with you, as fellow travellers on the road, and if any trouble finds us we’ll be sure to lend our services.”
Yonjon seemed quite insistent, so Miteus had little choice but to bear their company. Stand was only a day’s ride away, with any luck they would get there without hindrance, and his purse would not be lighter for the journey.
Sir Allian and Wise Christen had both fallen silent as the city of Artella approached below them. The Phaatos had been carrying them for hours at remarkable speed, and only now did Justin realise how close they were to the sea. They had lost most of their height, and the city still lay quite a distance before them. A feeling of horrified realisation gripped him.
“Wise one,” He said. “We cannot approach Artella from the sea! The harbour walls are too well defended!”
Wise Christen raised his hand to silence him, and Sir Allian could see the lines of concentration in the old man’s face. The harbour walls began to loom before them as the Phaatos almost skimmed the sea. Justin could see the brothers sitting atop them, the row upon row of greatbolts lining the approach. The face of each wall was criss-crossed with walkways, each teeming with guards and bowmen. Even without the defences, the wall was formidable and could withstand the worst any seafaring force could muster. With them, assaulting it was suicide. He clutched his sword as they approached, but felt his grip relax as he saw the guards going about their business seemingly unaware. The Phaatos rose and glided over the walls, coming within a few feet of the heads of the guards, and still they did not seem to notice. The wizard and the knight slipped silently through the air and dropped into an alley away from the main road to the castle. The carpet drifted to a gentle stop and hovered a few inches above the cobbles. Wise Christen got to his feet and stepped off the carpet, and Justin did likewise. The wizard turned and addressed the Phaatos directly.
“Make yourself scarce, and listen for my call.” He said quietly. The carpet fluttered and swept up into the air, racing into the sky and out of sight. Christen reached into his satchel and pulled out a set of brown robes, before removing his hat and putting it into the bag.
“Illusions would normally suffice.” Christen explained. “But rothstone has been known to disrupt magic, so I must trust in more conventional methods. I will be a few moments.”
And Christen vanished. Justin cast his eye across the entire alley, but the wizard was nowhere to be seen. Wise Christen’s powers of invisibility were not unknown to him, but it was the first time he had witnessed the old man conjure himself from sight. For the first time in years the thought occurred to the knight of the horror of facing an enemy he could not see or hear. The knowledge that it was not his eyes that betrayed him, but his mind, unsettled him even more. Justin could understand the terror that his ancestors felt during the mage war.
“It is true.” Christen’s voice rang out inside his mind. “The power of magic is great and terrible. Lord Wetherhall and his kin have good cause to be fearful of magic blood.”
Justin watched as a man appeared before him wearing the simple hooded brown robes of a monk, tied at the waist with rope and a golden disc hanging over his chest. The man’s face was old and scarred, with a short brown beard. It was not the wizard’s face, although Justin knew it was Christen who stood before him.
“The mage war was hardest in this realm. The scars run deep.” Christen’s voice continued. “The Orders of Wizardry were founded in part as a shield to guard the realm from the dangers of magic. We also take it upon ourselves to protect those of magic blood from the fears of mortal men. Come, we must get to the castle quickly.”
Justin’s legs had still not fully awoken from the long journey from Gania, and he found the first mile of the trek through the streets of the city difficult. The second mile was steeply uphill, but the sight of the castle towering over them reminded him of his Lady waiting within, and the walk did not seem so hard.
As they approached the gatehouse Wise Christen spoke to him in again in his mind.
“I am a simple Morjian Monk, you are bringing me to Lady Jalice for Holy counsel. Remember this and we shall not be troubled.”
There was a reassuring confidence in the tone of the words. As they neared the iron portcullis the gatekeeper stepped out to meet them. He raised a hand and looked the two men in the eye. Justin saw the guard’s face and felt even greater reassurance.
“Sir Allian!” The guard called out to them. “I did not expect to see you back so soon, I heard you had gone with the Lord.”
“I had travelled north with him, but I was on the good Lady’s business. She has found herself in need of a Morjian Monk.”
“Did she not send for Artella’s reader?”
“She asked me to go to the Great Temple, I did not think it my place to question her reasons.” Sir Allian replied with a slightly accusatory tone.
“Of course, Sir.”
“I trust the Monk has passage?”
“Of course, Sir Allian, I wouldn’t dare refuse passage to a man of the Book.” The guard turned and called up. “Raise the gate!”
The call was echoed and the portcullis slowly ground upwards, scraping against the stone.
“You will take us to the Lady at once.” Sir Allian said.
“Sorry, Sir, but I have to remain on the gate, and the Commander said all guests were to be seen to the Lord’s solar.”
“The Lady’s need is urgent.” Justin snapped back. “And it wasn’t a request.”
The guard, my any measure young and inexperienced, buckled under the commanding tone. He bowed in submission and called out to one of his comrades.
“Lanry! Man the gate!”
“Sod off, you’re on gate duty today!” Came a frustrated reply.
“Now, damn it!” The guard cried back.
Lanry emerged from one of the gate towers, a short and wide man, clearly older than the gatekeeper. When he saw Justin clad in armour he stopped and realisation dawned. He scurried under the portcullis and called for it to be lowered. Their new escort began to lead them through the courtyard and into the castle.