Discover more from Wednesday Afternoon
The place where words come from.
"So, you want to be a smith."
The man speaking has grime under his eyes. The passing years etched deep lines on his face, creating a kaleidoscope of shadows by the firelight. He speaks with an accent from the Northern region, but it's not heavy enough to be sure. Perhaps he hasn't been there for a while. Maybe there's a reason why.
The girl doesn't ask questions. Instead, she nods. Her own tired, bag-eyed stare doesn't waver under his gaze as he looks her over with the determination of a saint admitting a soul into heaven or damning it to hell. From the top of her hatless head to the heels of her treadless shoes, he takes her in, searching for something. She's not sure she wants him to find it.
Maybe she does. She's not exactly sure what he's looking for.
"It's hard work," he says, leaning back on his stool. It creaks underneath him, complaining about the weight he carries. Not around his belly, but in his arms. His legs. He's stronger than she expected. More solid. Unshakable. Like the mountain. "Not like ironsmithing or forestry. Words aren't pliable like those things."
She nods again, though she doesn't understand.
"Not everyone can make it as a smith." His words are careful, cautious. "They say it drives people mad. They think they'll come in here, sit down with a quill and make letters on pretty paper. It doesn't work that way."
He's testing her. She knows it.
"What is it like?" she asks. Her voice echoes around the chamber, bouncing off the rock walls and the tools that hang there. Chisels, knives, hammers. A few pencils, but no quills. No pretty paper. Only dirt and rock and stone.
The man on the stool considers her. One toe hangs out the side of her shoe, her filthy fingers and chipped nails hanging quietly at her sides. Matted hair droops in tangles around her shoulders, curling behind her ears like smoke from the forge. Her shirt and skirt hang awkwardly on her small frame, more like a shroud than clothing, and her threadbare coat dangles from one hand, its hem dragging across the floor.
He has no idea how she made it here alive.
She doesn't carry a bag. Her pockets don't bulge with goodies or secrets or even a wrapped sandwich for the journey. No one prepared her for the climb. Others have come before her, pretending to be lonely walkers in the world, but he always sees through their lies. The mountain whispers the truth. It has protected him from many false friends, and he has learned to trust its wisdom over the years. Surprisingly, it has little to add about the girl that stands in front of him. Only a few whispers of reassurance, and the feeling that yes, she is indeed who she claims to be.
A nobody. A child of the city, born to an empty home, a sobbing grandmother with a drinking problem, and a hollow future. No reason to stay and nowhere to go.
Let her in, whispers the mountain. Teach her. She will be good here.
He hears it. He always hears it. He doesn't always listen, but today, he does.
"It is like war," he says, his massive arms crossing over his chest. "Words are powerful. They require respect. They must be tamed. Mined words, carefully treated, can become usable. Added to our coffers, sent down to the city below. But they will fight you. They will test you. Words are unreliable, anxious, untethered. They need reassurance that you will treat them with care, and only then will they help you."
She stares silently as he continues.
"Most people think words are just ink on a page. You scrawl them, or write them, or jot them down, and that's that. But every word written comes from this place. We mine them, clean them up, get them ready to be used. Then, when someone puts their pen on paper, the word is ready."
The girl nods. In understanding or agreement, he isn't sure. Maybe both.
"When we mine, we crush rocks from the mountain. There are sounds there. Hidden words, ready to be found. We process them. Polish them. Take them from nothing and make something out of them. When we have enough, we take them down to the city. That will be their home."
She nods again.
"It is hard work," he repeats. "Not many find their home here."
She considers his words, his warning echoing in her ears. He's telling her to be careful. Not to expect too much. That this life is not one that other people choose. That if she does, it will be grueling. It will not be quill pens and pretty paper.
But she has nothing else to return to.
"Will I live here?"
Not would. Will. She wants to stay.
The smith releases a breath he didn't know he was holding, feeling like a weight has come off his shoulders. For many years, he waited for an apprentice. He'd almost given up on finding one. And now, here she is. Ready and willing to work.
At least, he hopes so.
"Yes. It is my home, and it will also be yours."
For the first time, he sees her smile.
(Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko, Pexels)