A traveling mage needs a smith for some unusual armor.
Tags: wlw, magical realism, au
The moon's gentle breeze greeted me when I left the forge. A deep breath told me that dinner would be delicious again tonight, and that I should hurry to the square before the kitchens stopped their ovens. My arms were sore from the long afternoon's repairs, all ends of metalwork for the town's needs piled at the shed walls with some newly donated swords for recycling. The fine metal pieces had needed to cut no more skin, everyone worked hard all these years to be sure of that. But the sharpened material itself was in high demand for doctors and printing, both tools of healing in their own way.
Caught up in the daily mental log of where to begin tomorrow, I wiped the sweat from my face, turning west to watch the orange glow of summer's dusk.
Flames rose, licking between the stage trees at the edge of town. By proximity, the mill stores would catch next. My feet found me in the middle of town shouting. Only a few people turned from their food to look at me in the square. Could they not see? Turning another corner, a few more headed to the stage with little concern.
A force knocked me off my feet. My brother and I fell to the dirt, him laughing.
"A mage! A show mage!"
I was too winded, from work, from running, from shock. I checked his smiling face. A bemused grocer pursed her lips and turned back to closing the windows near us. I fell back in relief to his gleeful laughter. I suppose I could not hear the announcer against the metal's chimes. One would have certainly run through town with the mage's arrival. This story would not fade for awhile.
The fire moved against the wind. It was a strange sight in the hills.
"A little far to travel here," Fal seemed to agree at least. He helped me up and laughed anew.
"What?" I snapped, still winded. Fal made a move, as if to scratch his nose, then stopped.
"Nothing much," he promised, "We should hurry. You've never seen a show mage before right? I'll pull dear father from his loom." He shoved me forward, "Have fun."
The empty streets made more sense. A few people carried plates towards the glow. Mages found various homes for themselves these days. Their wrought gifts flowed through all sorts of commodities. Water friends and green tongues were heavily sought after. Fire mages depended on the skill. Mother met many in the city smithing, collaborations offering finer control for temperature and detailed work. A few traveled between fields for yearly burning. I also considered myself a friend to flame, since together we cast many nails over for the homes all around.
This fire was different. It flowed from the stage like a waterfall, rolling waves over the growing crowd. There was no scorching heat as it lingered above our heads. Only a soft warmth taking the edge off dusk's chill. I'd heard stories, of course, of skilled performances in firelight but nothing like this.
"Maddam Mage Raan of First Light," the caller rang from the stage side.
"Maddam Mage Raan of First Light!" The crowd chanted in return.
The light drew me closer. Even the setting sun dimmed in comparison. Chills shook my skin. Flames seemed to part with my approach, their depth unlike anything found in my forge. The crowd chanting rose until the fire curled upon itself and opened like a pair of wings.
Perhaps I was too focused at the front of the stage. She seemed far away but we met gazes easily. A beaming figure overflowing with all her power. My breath caught at the sight. She smiled.
Not at me, I reminded myself. The show was beginning.
The wings unfurled and spun across our hundred figures dancing in delight. A near music reached for my ears but nothing I could catch. The fire held all of us, weaving through the trees and past, into the lace work of the stars. It dove and curled between us, gathering like churning waves, breaking over us in silent fireworks and harmless sparks that only shimmered against skin.
I reached out for a flame, touching the moment. Perhaps this was something like a dream. Fire could not be so gentle, even in its best effort. The mage above us shone confidently. The armor she wore could barely be seen in the contrast. The fire sank and swelled into mountains, each of us sitting in small valleys that swayed between swirling peaks. The crowd called out in wonder. The highest peaks would sink, new mountains rising around and falling again, until we were all found in the beautiful light of a single great flowing valley. The energy sunk into my bones and hummed as though I were at the forge's mouth again.
There seemed no end to the shapes the fire could sculpt. The peaks gathered into a single mass that bloomed a rose. The petals fell to the ground and grew into pillars of trees. The branches became arches with dancing ceilings, whose small fires fell upon us like shooting stars. I felt like I could almost understand what I was seeing.
Children raced between standing legs and beside me someone whispered the ceiling's landscape to an elderly who cupped a fire star to their face. Delighted, I held out my own hand, and the small falling fire lingered with me. One by one, we realized a fire would come to us if we held out a hand, until we all stood in the deep night clutching the light to our chests.
The mage held out an arm, the flamed wings dropping to a cape as her eyes closed. A fire, multicolored, rose from the edges of her fingertips, drawing on the light of ours. I could almost understand. The light seemed to flow between one another, growing stronger between them, brighter with the air's joy.
"Thank you for meeting me," the mage spoke, the caller repeating, and the crowd cheering back. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for coming, all the way here.
The cape of flame folded around her, the trees twisted with it, and we fell into the deep tones of the night. The small fires balanced on our fingertips, floating like spring's wind-traveling seeds. A group rushed the stage. Their fires lit the mage's laughing face as people exclaimed all their feelings, eager to bask in her light a little more.
I felt silly to think our eyes had met. The fire in my hand wavered only slightly with the thought.
It rested beside me as I grabbed the night's last breads, cooks only just returning with their own small fires. They distractedly scraped me a bowl while putting on one more broiling pot for the night. More people hungry from the excitement appeared. Sounds of the stage crowd were hardly over. Everyone would be up as long as the firelight.
I took a long stroll around the town riverside, watching my fire shine above the water. Curious fireflies bumped into me to inspect it. Too soon it faded, hours later, the high rise of the moon competing with the last ember. Only the burning gaze of her memory remained.
Fal and I were going to talk. If my sibling was seeing this sort of thing in the city all the time, I was determined to scold him well for not taking me. My arguments against him were already piling up from years of discourse.
The door home was open as always. Warm textiles lined the walls for giving and chalk boards listing order requests and contacts. It was a comforting sight but I was unprepared to return to our normalcy. Distracted, I missed the food lined table, or the hardlined shoulders of my mother across the room. I appeared in the doorway disheveled and lazy from wandering, to find Madam Mage Raan of First Light sitting at our table, cut peaches set before her.
I stopped. She smiled.
Madam Mage Raan's hair was braided finely with black satin ribbons and adorned in admirers' charms. I recognized a few pendants from the other girls in town, and for the first time wished I had one to give. How long would she wear them? Her hair had flowed freely in the performance, twisting to flames, yet the style now would have taken all day even for the best salon hands to craft. In a few days time, I would see her fire-locked hair fold itself into these braids within blinks. For the moment, the mystery only added to her magic. The armor sat on the ground beside her, pitched darker than iron, absorbing the room's glow indistinct as shadows. The mage was seated in travelers clothes tailored with perfection and embroidered along the seams with small stars.
"Here she is!" Mother lunged across the room, grabbing me by both shoulders. "We'll be just a moment, my daughter is obviously worn from a long day's work, just a moment." She steered us back out the door just as Fal appeared, heated from running.
"There you are! I was looking all over for you-" he cut off as mother grabbed us both.
"Where have you been?" She looked at me twice, rubbing at my nose as we walked to the closest fountain. "She's been waiting for hours."
"Whatever for?" I was staring back at the doorway, the mage's armor sitting just at the edge of view. I splashed my face with the free flowing water, seeing in the reflection a large streak of carbon across my face. Fal looked purposefully away when I noticed.
"I tried to find you," Fal offered to the air, "To warn you to look neat." At least this I could believe. Mother shushed him, folding her strong arms across her chest to look at me.
"Madam Mage is looking for a travelling smith," she started. This hardly made sense.
"It seems her armor needs some care. She wanted to discuss the specifics with you," and here they both looked at me meaningfully.
"We've never met before," I offered, still processing and washing the soot off my arms. "I saw the performance but I left after."
"Yes, gone for hours," Fal stated, in disbelief, "I came back twice hoping you'd come home."
Mother shoved his shoulder, "Go find a nice coat at least," which he did.
Decorated in plum velvet meant for the winter solstice, I was able to appear at least a little nicer in the doorway of my own home. The mage was busy being entertained by my father's weaving, a few pieces already traded and unusually well ribboned beside her. Mages promised rare odd jobs, but travelling was not one I'd heard.
"Madam Mage-" I began and she looked up brightly.
"Raan is fine." She sounded clear like a bell. She signed the symbols on her hand. RAAN, the hairpin curve of a river meeting a lake, twin mountains ascending, a reflection. The name seemed perfect. I was struck without words. Fal kicked my heel gently.
"You needed a travelling smith?" I restated vaguely and mother, use to the city trades, looked aghast. Mother might have made more sense to ask for this task in general, I thought, being more skilled and requested by messengers across even the four great cities.
"Yes," the mage offered a slice of peach, which I took hungrily, "I use a special sort-of armor for the shows, and I need someone to care for it."
I glanced down at the armor, whose material remained unknown.
"I happened to catch sight of you in the performance," here Raan looked away, and I blushed. I suppose few trades were covered in soot and ash as I was. "I thought someone young might be available to travel some distance if the work was suitable to them."
Raan was at least as young as myself, though the way she said this made it seem less so. Crouching by the armor helped little to discern its shapes. The surface certainly reminded me of iron, but it cast less reflection than coal. During the performance I thought I could see the red hot lines of its seams, but none could be found now. Raan watched me consider it, along with my mother, brother, and father who were all wringing their hands.
"It's an unusual piece," I said plainly, "I'm unsure how to care for it."
"Few are," Raan offered, a little unhelpfully. "The fire of each place will show you the parts to tend to."
She pulled out a small folded map, obviously copied from another. It showed few towns I knew, a constellation of stops further from the river. The distance was at least six months travel alone, not including nights stayed in each place. Mother couldn't be from the shop for that long, perhaps I did make more sense for this work. The map was labeled with pieces of the armor, specific plates and joins, sometimes with question marks. Our town was marked 'bust, left side?' I tried to piece together the information.
"So the armor must be forged on site?" Raan nodded, pulling a weighted purse from her belt. Coin was generally not needed these days, but it helped smooth inconveniences between towns when trade wavered needs.
"I can offer this much deposit," two coins were placed on the table of unknown value, one bright and smooth, one worn and woven, to which my mother audibly gasped.
"At each forge I can help procure its use," another coin landed, "and offer payment for the services," one more coin. These were probably town gifts, I realized, a consideration for her return to them one day.
"I'm not sure," all three family members twisted to look at me in unison, "I mean, I'm not studied in magic. I'm not sure how to properly care for such important armor." I had a book of signs to help stoke the fires and little more. Mother could not argue this, to our regret. Raan seemed unbothered.
"This is not a type of magic to be studied. You may handle the set, if you wish. Your head smith has already considered it herself." Mother opened her mouth to say something, but I was eager to feel the strange material so I picked up the chest piece quickly.
It was light as bird bones.
Mother was looking at me strangely. Raan seemed pleased. Fal's mouth hung open. I looked down to see a curved indent in the floorboards, where the piece had laid. Raan followed my gaze, suddenly apologetic, "Oh, it's quite heavy when not worn by me it seems. It sinks through wood and stone a bit easily."
Through stone? I turned the piece over and, faintly, could see a single seam caught in the light, a hairline fragment forming. The force of the fire magic? They could not be seen clearly, but my fingers found small carvings like inlaid messages. Some of what I thought were texture were these.
"The armor was gifted to me," Raan continued, "so what I know is what I've been told. The fire of each place will show the wound to heal. There is no material needed, no matter how much you hammer the piece will not thin. The signs cannot be destroyed by any tool, so you may work over these as if they are not there. The armor is heavy so only people suitable for the task may be able to handle it."
Turning the armor twice over, I needed to hardly consider whether or not I wanted to follow a fire mage of such skill and strange armor on this journey. Raan's gaze sought mine.
"When do we hope to leave?" It seemed the most professional response I could give.
Father was fighting tears, hands stained from many dyes cupping my face as he kissed my cheeks over again. Fal was exhausted and bleary eyed, and could only swing an arm over me in a hug after running all over town for provisions. Mother was recounting every piece packed, for the third time, before turning to me. Our builds were similar, she only stood an eyeline above me, but each time I thought she seemed grander. She took our bronzed hands together and kissed them. Last night I had agreed to leave in the morning, stuck in eagerness, but the sudden attention left me homesick.
"You'll write," she stated, a double meaning I already knew. Tell me you're well. Each town. Tell me about the strange armor. In detail. Her learning about such things could never fill. It was in part why the cities called upon her all the time. Her name alone could find open lodging during the heavy seasons in a few towns.
Raan stood with two steeds, one newly acquired I recognized. She wore the armor I had begun repairing last night. The fracture was small, and the coal-pitched material moved like butter under a quick hammer. Shape it in the way that makes sense was all I was told. It had worked. Raan had lit the fire herself, a finger tip setting the forge ablaze in the midnight hours. This was a requirement for all repairs. The fire hardly seemed different at first, but a few friendly licks against the wind said otherwise. Raan bid goodnight to both the fire and I when we were done.
"Thank you for working on short notice," Raan adjusted in her saddle to face Mother and I. She had stayed politely turned while I was fussed over.
"Not at all," Mother answered for me. I checked over the armor's map. Small moons were drawn in various corners, like a compass. Raan had pointed their angles to me last night. We were hoping to reach the next town with the new moon, to repair a more heavily damaged seam. The order, timing, was all important. I was afraid to ask too many questions, and it seemed information would come along.
We'd make way for three days to the next seam, stopping for a show and preparations once along the way. Ultimately, we'd end up in the eastern mountains, further than most local map makers drew. But we would meet several seasons before then.
This town had been my lifelong home and plan for the oncoming years. Would I be back to see the trees turn for spring?
Raan nodded as I finally readied my horse, "I'll return her by the fresh blossoms. I hope to thank you with a new show by then." I felt transparent and red. Was I obviously homesick already? I tried to sneak looks at the disappearing hills as we left with the morning light.
We made easy distance in silence. The wind seemed to blow always with us. Raan referenced three maps at each turn, one navy blue with dotted stars, and two drawn in the usual style, with conflicting information.
Dusk began to form and Raan steered us towards the river marker to camp for the night. The first town would prepare soft beds for us, but for the moment I hardly cared about the ground. I hoped I could learn more about Raan over dinner. She offered little details as we chopped rough roots for stew, seeming distracted by the fading sunlight.
"I can finish if you'd like a look." Raan glanced at me, and back to the west hills. She left quietly, standing between the treeline until the food was nearly done and the way was dark. I found out this was no problem for her, who glowed softly at night. Last night I thought it was a trick of the forge light, or perhaps the natural radiance of a performer.
"Thank you," Raan sat, looking refreshed. Her braids had rewoven mysteriously into long plates down her back. A few admirer charms had been put aside. A few remained.
"Do you look to the sunset often?" I asked only conversationally, but Raan turned to me seriously before she realized.
"Any time I can make it." She took a sip of the broth. It was quite good. Fal stuffed some city seasonings into my pocket before we left. A gift, he said. She took another spoonful, pleased, "I got a cook as well as a smith."
I was blushing too readily, I was beginning too suspect my own motives for the journey. Or confirm. However such things worked. Several seasons to decide, I told myself. Raan took a small bowl for us each, forking the tenderest pieces while we waiting for the rest.
"I'm not much for talking," she began, and I hardly stopped my nod, "but I have stories if you'd like to hear them."
This became our routine.
Raan spoke in the future, present, and past tense without confusion between them. She seemed to speak around and around, as though trying to show me a shape I could hardly distern.
She described a rose vine made from fire, past a forest that could never burn. A night where one could meet clouds and follow them across the landscape that held many forms at once. The stories, pieced together, seemed directly related to her in some way. I never questioned them, though little sense they made. Mages had a different understanding of things. This, at least, my mother had managed to impress upon me with her travels.
Raan asked me about smithing, but I could only say I was shoved upon my mother after completely tangling my father's best threads. She laughed.
By the third town, I'd grown use to the ground and shifting tales. Raan wove her fire hair in front of me. At first, the fire folded itself between the ribbons and charms, lacing them neatly. Each tightly curled thread drew to flame and back again in place. Soon no charms remained. I noticed quite late. Raan only smiled at the offerings in towns.
"How did you see me in the crowd?" I finally asked one night.
"You saw me first."
Raan did not look up from her book. It was another text I couldn't read. Raan new more languages than I had heard of. Was that how it had happened?
In cities and towns, Raan soaked the praise that fell upon her. She replied to each person in their tongue, basking in the nightlight. She glowed each time after, so I suppose the work suited her. The coins told me there wasn't much need otherwise.
My duty as a smith was challenged in each spot mapped for seam work. Raan had not mentioned it, but it was not the armor wounds alone that changed but the entirety of the armor. I had to relearn the pieces each time we arrived. Local forge hands looked over the shape, hearing the stones creaking beneath the weight. No one dared to touch it, but I had to learn to work under their gaze.
The shape of the armor together was certainly whole. I took to drawing them in outlines as reference, dates and locations. The paper Raan brought me for the task was smooth like silk and I worried using it. The moon mapping made more sense with time, but when I asked Raan about the armor's shifting shape she only looked at me strangely.
"Everything is like that."
Mages have few answers to common questions, I suppose. But she listened intently, like she was trying to hear my side. The armor was a quarter mapped by fall, patterns in forms slowly emerging with the changing leaves.
Raan too was taking another form in the colder nights. Her hair licked to flame more often, and she lazied more openly by the sunsets, taking her blankets and sitting close enough for me to follow. I began to suspect winters were hard on her. I shopped more breads and cheese with coins I could not share fast enough. The rest I loaned in Mother's name in trade to local shops. The coin oddities hung on shelves once shared and I only regretted I could not answer the shop keepers' questions about them.
Mother sent relentless letters. Neither I nor the messengers between towns could keep up. I would end up receiving stacks at a time, which I hid from Raan who seemed to receive none.
Finding them one day, Raan placed the stack beside me saying softly "it's not a problem." Then proceeded to tell me about how the river meet the three color mountains which were one.
When winter's deepest night fell, Raan laid about for days. I wrote home an extension. If we did not make it back until summer, or fall, or two springs later, it would be my choice. We lingered more in towns, skipping over armor seams whose distance we could not travel for fast enough. Tavern campfires made easy shows for Raan, who wove the flames into her favorite tree-like terraces and let soft light fall from them.
Raan's glow was barely bright enough to write by during the nights. She watched my script take shape from beneath three blankets. Raan found us a town to stay until the new year. She neatly enchanted a waterfall city for weeks. Visitors had begun appearing from nearby towns to watch the sloping hills bloom fields of fire flowers across the rocky landscape.
The armor's map showed over half the pieces had been repaired. Yet that also left half. Raan watched me study it sternly with her navy star map. She had folded it many ways to show me how it worked, but still I could not see it.
"Are you eager to go home?" the voice came from Raan's pillow, but the tone seemed different.
"What, no," I sat up, peering past candlelight. Raan was still tucked and turned beneath too many quilts.
"I already wrote I would be late. That's no bother," I said. But Raan's air did not change.
"Mother's trade is strong as ever, cutting back work now could only do her well," still no response so I had a sudden thought, "and rather I would prefer to travel with you." No response.
I had one more chance to turn back, "as long as you'll have me."
If I lingered by Raan's side a couple years unspoken, perhaps it would be too devastating in the end.
So many charms from beautiful charmers appeared in towns, and still she did not sit to drink and eat with another but me. She did not speak of anyone besides the trees, clouds, and stones we passed. She did not write to anyone. My wording was loose enough to be anything. So, if Raan wanted to ignore it, we could continue to sleep soundly and laugh lightly plucking berries from bushes by roadsides as before. If Raan wanted to hang a new charm from her tightly woven hair tomorrow, she could. I would accept whatever message she gave me.
"You speak of the spring trees like they're sure to bloom tomorrow," Raan said. "Each corner of your home is carved in your recounts. I've heard every colored thread hung on the walls of your kitchen, the foods you can only enjoy there, and three times you have mentioned the baker girl two doors down," the list went on. My duty, as her smith, lay forgotten somewhere. The corners of the room were beginning to glow an ember red, and Raan stayed under covers which flickered faintly at the edges.
The baker daughter does make the best handpie I've ever tasted, it was true. And the color of the kitchen and its smells were missed on occasion. The corners of the town stayed impressed with me, I knew them too long, and I had little stories besides to share. As for the spring trees, I knew why I mentioned these. The words fell easily.
"I hope you'll meet the baker's daughter and have her handpie. I hope you'll see each corner of town and stay a little longer when the armor is done. I think your light would only improve the kitchen. The food would taste better with you there. My family would love to hear your stories. For the spring trees, I only hope to see them with you. In the summer, fall, and winters too."
The covers were nearly burning at the edges.
"Father would stitch a new double quilt, Mother would brag to each of the four great cities in turn, and Fal would become even more unbearable. We'd never have a moments peace."
The room was light enough to read by.
"So, for a long while, I would like to travel with you. Chasing any direction of sunset you prefer."
Like dawn over the mountain's bend, Raan looked out from under the many layers, shining daybreak across the floorboards to reach me.
"And never once have you given me a charm."
Here I blushed too readily. "If I could only make one fitting enough in secret, I would, but every hand in town is watching at the forges!"
"You should let them watch. I would be wearing it at every performance regardless."
It's difficult to say whether the dawn sunlight is shy or direct.