The cock crowed and he cried. As he pulled on his rough-hewn sackcloth clothes, he still cried. He stepped outside his meagre dwelling, looked up at the looming castle through the rain and saw no reason to stop crying. Many would envy his position as a blacksmith’s apprentice, but Thomas was miserable. He was useless at smithing and Master Flint never missed an opportunity to ridicule him in front of the other apprentices. His foul breath was as hot as any furnace and the flecks of spittle burned like cinders as he blasted out his daily tirades.
How he hated Master Flint.
Thomas trudged up the hill to the castle trying to understand how he found it so difficult. The instructions were simple enough, but the tools felt like shapeless, clumsy clubs in his hands. Master Flint talked about the feel of the craft, but it was all Thomas could do to avoid maiming himself as he hefted the white-hot metal.
As he approached the threshold, he heard Master Flint giving his first lecture of the day. Realising with dismay that he was late, Thomas tried to sneak to his workplace unnoticed. He almost made it when Master Flint stopped mid sentence. With trepidation, Thomas turned to look, only to see Master Flint’s eyes burning into his soul. For a change, there was no tirade and Master Flint just stared at Thomas as he shuffled with sloped shoulders to take his place.
Master Flint resumed exactly where he left off, all the time glaring at Thomas. Today’s task was all about forging a dagger, one of the most challenging jobs the apprentices had faced so far. Thomas’ heart sank. He had struggled at almost everything so far. How on Earth was he going to forge a dagger. His worst fears were confirmed when Master Flint’s assistant dumped the unformed lump of metal onto Thomas’ workbench. It looked nothing like a dagger.
After dropping it twice, Thomas managed to get the lump under control. His heart froze when it nearly slipped from his tongs into the slag at the bottom of the furnace, but somehow he managed to get the ingot white hot. Edging the glowing lump over to his anvil, he groped around for the right tool. Settling for the first he found, Thomas swung it as hard as he could into the ingot.
It struck with an off-pitch clang and vicious sparks flew out in every direction. Thomas screamed as one flew into his eye. Master Flint appeared from nowhere, grabbed the tool from Thomas’ hand and rattled out the three things he had done wrong – each punctuated with a ringing blow on the anvil. The pain in his eye and the ignominy of yet another lecture in front of everyone was too much for Thomas. He ripped off his apron and ran.
He darted across the busy courtyard and down a corridor. Skittering around a corner, he nearly lost his footing on the wet flagstones. Another turn later and he slowed his pace, but not his sobbing. One more turn and he was lost. He noticed it was no longer raining, and the castle looked different. The stones looked more haphazard, but cleaner. Bright, sweet-smelling flowers grew at the base of the walls. Nearby, he could hear the cascade of a stream and a girl’s voice singing a haunting melody.
Still sobbing, he followed the sounds around the next corner. The singing girl had long dark hair and she dangled her feet in the small, rapid stream. She heard him, stopped singing and turned. Thomas froze. She was dressed in rags, but there was no denying her beauty. Even when she withdrew her feet from the stream and boldly approached him, the sound was almost magical.
Tipping her head to one side, she reached up to touch Thomas’ cheeks and his tears dried beneath her caress. “You are troubled.” her words almost like musical raindrops. “For a kiss, I can grant your deepest desire, but you have to be sure of what you want.” Thomas quickly leaned in and kissed her. The rags she wore felt like silk and Thomas found himself lost in her heady aroma.
* * *
He was unsure of how long he had slept, but Thomas awoke stiff and damp. It was still daylight and knowing his place was at the forge, he reluctantly paced his way back there. Thomas made no pretence of hiding from Master Flint and Master Flint made no secret of his contempt for Thomas, but no words were spoken.
Thomas reached for his tongs and thrust the ingot back into the furnace. Somehow, he knew exactly the right moment to pull it out and he instinctively started working it with the right tool. He hammered the ingot with just the right pressure and somehow it started to take shape. Realising his work had cooled, he thrust it back into the flames. Again, he pulled it out without fumbling and resumed working the iron.
With growing confidence, Thomas’ work rate increased. His hands were almost a blur, the notes from the hammer blows forming a satisfying rhythm. He didn’t even notice the other apprentices as they gathered round him watching in awe. What he did notice was when he felt Master Flint’s encouraging hand on his shoulder and his whispered encouraging words in his ear.
Thomas felt alive and his spirits soared. He had only ever dreamed of becoming a competent smith. The notion that he might actually excel and impress Master Flint made him beam uncontrollably. By his skilled hand, the finest dagger Thomas had ever seen came to life. When he finished, he cradled the dagger, savouring the perfect balance and the pleasing shape.
He offered it up to Master flint who laughed and sagely nodded “there were times when I ‘ad my doubts about you boy. But you come good in the end.”
Thomas could not help but smile wordlessly and proud, not noticing when his hand formed a vice-like grip around the hilt of the dagger. For reasons he could not fathom, he felt like hugging Master Flint. As Thomas approached, his grip on the dagger tightened. He threw his arms around Master Flint, meaning to drop the dagger, but his hand did not obey.
As the dagger slipped between Master Flint’s ribs, Thomas realised with horror the nature of his bargain.
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