Fez walked quickly despite his grief. If he took overlong, Sir Alec would be angry, and he remembered the last time that happened. He must have shoed every horse in the kingdom as Sir Alec sold his skilled services for the mere price of the lump iron he worked. Eight days that farce of a sale lasted, and by the end Fez wasn’t sure who hurt more – the anvil or him.
To top it all off, he broke two hammers, which Sir Alec would have taken out of his hide right there in the shop if not for a middle-aged nobleman interceding, “Any man strong enough to break two hammers shoeing a horse should be arming knights, not cobbling for ponies. I’ll have a longsword – plain steel, no pomp. Twice the normal price, and I’ll pay for every hammer he breaks, the more the better, starting with these two.”
Thank god he was so strong, because his wits sure wouldn’t save him. Fez swore to himself that he should be running the smithy, not slaving for it under the reprehensible misnomer “apprentice.” After all, he could work any iron into any shape, faster, harder, and hotter than Alec could ever dream of. Yet somehow despite all his physical gifts, he could never manage to create a piece that stood up to Alec’s work, and that’s what people came to buy: Noblemen, adventurers, even the occasional traveling merchant. Sir Alec had a reputation for fine work, a large smithy, and a host of apprentices that loved him as much as they hated him, just as Fez did.
However, his was a different sort of love and hate. Fez was the only Nubian apprentice, and that warranted a special kind of mistreatment. Fez was also the only freerider. A man of Sir Alec’s skill was generally paid handsomely to take a nobleman’s son as an apprentice. Usually they were second sons or bastards with no claim of their own, but they were noble nonetheless. They fenced and drank and whored on their fathers’ coin. They were skilled in the arts of courtly manners, diplomacy, and all gentlemanly arts. They had everything and earned nothing, so Fez hated them.
Alec had everything and earned everything, so Fez loved him. Two shops: One in the slum district where land was cheap and billowing smoke throughout the night solicited nary a complaint from their discriminating neighbors. A second in the upscale market district where Alec himself spent much of his time showing off, and selling, his finest wares to the finest people.
Three forges: Two of utmost quality. The third, Flamebrand, a forge so hot its notoriety often drew wayward wizards and kings hoping to destroy this item or that. A particularly seedy man once offered Alec a thousand gold pieces if he could dispose of his brother’s body in order to lay sole claim to the family fortune. Alec promptly informed him that any item forged in Flamebrand after that would be so cowardly he’d have horses running from their own horseshoes. The man would have started trouble, except eight burly apprentices wielding red-hot pokers tend to weaken one’s resolve.
Eight apprentices: Seven noble sons, signed on for hundreds, if not thousands, of gold pieces to be Alec’s slaves until he tires of them. One freerider, plucked off the street with no father, no history, no past.
By age five, Fez was working in a kitchen churning butter. His capacity for brute work and his inability (or unwillingness) to properly protest his situation made him the perfect ape for a smelly woman named Welda. That kitchen burned down when he was ten and he never saw Welda again. Fez wished he was sad, but he wasn’t. As far as he was concerned, living in the gutter was easier than working, and it smelled better, too. Besides, by that age he was already growing. He had no problem finding someone who needed something pulled, pushed, towed, dragged, lifted, and/or carried for a copper piece, and a few copper was all it took to eat.
Fez was twelve years old the first time he ventured to Alec’s shop. A man named Viktor Pruish made frequent use of his services, since “Beggars are cheaper than horses, boy.” That day, Viktor had business at Alec’s Smithy. His prize horse, Fleetfoot, needed new shoes. Most would say he needed a new horse, not new shoes, and Alec knew better than to try and shoe the crazy horse. However, Alec was at the uptown shop, and an apprentice named Noah didn’t know better.
Noah had the horse tied up to the anvil with one foot lifted when the crazy animal lost its mind. In a swift series of seemingly impossible movements, the horse simultaneously planted one hoof in Noah’s face, knocking him off his chair, and pulled the anvil down on top of him. Somehow in the process, Fleetfoot freed himself and bounded out the door, but not before his master. This left only Fez, standing over a bloodied, unconscious Noah pinned to the floor by a Smithy Anvil.
He would never forget the fire burning in his lungs as he ran to the temple. He was so tired he didn’t even remember arriving, merely waking up the next morning with a strange man beside his bed.
“How do you feel?”
“I’m okay, but I don’t have any money, milord – “
“You’re in a church, your money’s no good here.”
“A church,” his mind turned it over for a little while as the man looked at him puzzled, “Yes, I remember now. The smith, is he –“
Downcast, “Then I am sorry for his family.”
“I accept your apology.”
Frightened, “Sir, milord, I – I did not know.”
“I am no lord, though my wife believes otherwise. And dice not words with me. Your actions tell me much, words are just words. Do you really believe you can put them in some order that will change my thoughts?”
Slack jawed, “I am just a boy…”
“No, you’ve had blood on your hands so now you’re a man, and you must face the consequences.”
Terrified, “No, sir, I did not kill him!”
“What did I tell you about words?”
“As a man you will need a job.”
“But I have nothing.”
“You have only what you’ve earned, and if you haven’t earned it, then possessing it’s merely a transitory illusion of entitlement.” The man rose wearily, “Besides, those things aren’t worth having anyway.”
The man looked Fez over and for a moment almost grinned, “Well it’s a good thing you didn’t have to answer a riddle to get that anvil off. Listen, if you’ve earned something – truly earned it, with your own two hands,” The man shook his worldly hands passionately, “nobody can take it away, even if they take the physical thing you owned. Do you understand?”
Long, contemplating pause, “No…”
The man grunted in annoyance, “Well, luckily kingdoms aren’t held together with brains, they’re held together with this.” The man extended his finger towards Fez’s muscular arm before moving slowly to the right and tapping him square in the chest. At that, he turned and began to leave.
Awestruck, “Wait, what now?”
“What do you mean?”
“What happens to me now?”
The man turned to face him again, “Only what you’ve earned.”
The awe left Fez’s face, “Which is nothing.”
“Wrong, you’ve earned yourself a job. I wish I could say Alec was taking you as an apprentice in honor of Noah, but alas I think he may have been more impressed that a twelve year old could lift an anvil off a grown man and carry him two and half miles to a temple.”
Fez stared at the man with disbelieving eyes, “Me? A blacksmith?”
“Goodness, nothing gets past you.” The man was clearly annoyed now. “If you don’t mind, I’m now down two sons and would prefer to get on with my grieving.” He turned and opened the door but paused for a second, “And Fez, one more thing. I wasn’t quite truthful with you. There is one person who can take away something you’ve earned.”
“Why, yourself of course. Don’t screw this up.” Then Gareth walked out the door.
A drop of water on his face reminded Fez he had a destination, albeit an unfortunate one. Oh great, rain, he thought, feeling sorry for himself. Then, in an instant his misery turned to shame. He was still such a boy. Gareth was the one that was dead, and here he was complaining about a little bit of rain.
As he turned up the path to Gareth’s house he pulled himself together. He would not be a boy, he would be a man, and that carried responsibility, like facing Beatrice, the harpy Gareth called his wife, and expressing his condolences, even if he was secretly enjoying her sadness. He never understood why Gareth married her. Fez supposed he loved her, but he never saw any evidence. Once time he ventured to ask Gareth about it, but Gareth angered like he’d never seen him before, “Damn you gutterboy, damn you and your ignorance and your presumption. Do not ever dare to ask me about my personal affairs again.” Fez didn’t.
Still, it hardly seemed fair that such a good man would be paired with such a witch. She had born him two children. The first, Nolan, had been brutish and temperamental like Beatrice; all self-important and full of unwarranted righteousness. The second, Noah, was kind and even-tempered like his father. Unfortunately, by the time Noah was 10 years old, the even-temperedness had been beaten into outright meekness by the wrath of his mother and older brother. Setting him up with Alec was Gareth’s way of trying to right the situation.
A couple years later Nolan was murdered by a bunch of thieves in a shady tavern several towns over. He had gone there to gamble, and purportedly tried to steal from said thieves. This left Gareth without an heir, and for a while he contemplated buying Noah out of Alec’s service but the damage was already done. Noah could never be Beatrice’s firstborn heir, and she’d never allow the meek Noah to replace her wonderful Nolan. So, Gareth was left with no heir, and after Noah’s death, no son either. Perhaps that’s why he took such an interest in Fez.
Before Fez could knock a second time, the door opened and a woman glared at him. “The last thing Lady Beatrice is going to want during her mourning is a new pair of horseshoes, now begone!”
“I was summoned here with sad tidings of Lord Gareth’s untimely passing. I am here to present this gift on behalf of Sir Alec, and to pay my own respects.” After carefully finishing the line he’d practiced so many times, Fez handed over the ornately carved vase that Alec had picked up from a traveling merchant.
“Yes, thank you very much, and I’ll convey your respects to milady, now get out of here.”
He must be strong, “Lady, I would like to see the body. Magistrate Talbot also mentioned there was a package for me.”
The lady was clearly vexed by all this. She and Beatrice had surely tried to convince the magistrate to leave him out of this but Gareth’s orders had been very clear. The door opened a hair, “Be quick.”
After leading him to the garden where the body lay, the lady departed momentarily and returned with a chest. “Milord’s last orders state this chest should go to you. They also say you’d know how to open it.” She stared at him expectantly, as if he was supposed to produce a hidden key of some sort.
Gareth did have a sense of humor. He knew how to open the chest, alright. After all, he made most of it. Kneeling down he tipped the chest on its side with one hand looking for the seam. Not very well concealed, he thought to himself as he wrenched the iron into two pieces with a large rock. Alec would be unhappy with the craftsmanship. With another pair of swift strokes he broke off the other iron strap and the lock. Red in the face at this barbaric display, the lady stormed off. Fez couldn’t help but smile. He wondered how long Gareth planned this moment, and what a raucous laugh he must be having right now.
Inside the chest, Fez found treasure that made his hands tremble. The most magnificent was a fine chain shirt, made of a thousand tiny rings woven together with infinite precision, and in places patched with copper, iron, or even silver. Up close it looked a little worn, but from afar the imperfections seemed a part of it, as if the shirt never existed without seamless, colorful patches.
Underneath the armor was a finely oiled buckler of hard leather turned black by years of dirt, oil, and heavy use. This was the same shield Gareth had used to teach Fez his artful, swift methods of combat – methods Fez knew he could never learn from a castle weapons master or a knight. The moves Gareth taught were earned, just like everything else about him.
Next to the buckler was a belt holstering four shiny axes. These were Gareth’s favorite weapons. He’d always made Fez use a variety of weapons – clubs, axes, swords, scimitars, picks, daggers – claiming that with true fluidity it didn’t matter what weapon he wielded. Nonetheless, Gareth only wielded one weapon, his axes. These were shined and polished and honed until their edges looked more like decorative platinum or silver than war-hewn steel.
But what was in the bottom of the box that truly caught his eye: A small ring tied to a rolled up piece of parchment. He was reaching for it when Beatrice spoke, “That armor was supposed to go to his son.”
Stumbling to his feat, Fez tried his best to be civil, “Milady, I cannot express –“
“Don’t patronize me! Whatever it is you think you express – and I know you don’t because you’re far to thick – is more meaningless to me than the ramblings of worthless, confused gutter rat.”
She was too kind.
“The axes as well?” She strode over to him unafraid and knocked the belt from his hands, “Is there no limit to this madness?”
He slowly picked up the belt.
“What are you doing?”
“They’re …” he stumbled for the words, “mine.” As soon as he said it, he knew he’d blundered.
“Yours? Yours!?” She slapped him across the face, “You have nothing, you hear me, nothing! You kill my son, then you kill my husband, and then I’m supposed to shower you with gifts like you’re my eldest born!?”
He did not know what to say, but he held onto the belt.
“Yes, that’s right, I know about your war games with Gareth. What, you think that now you’re a warrior? He taught you some sort of secret sauce that will make you invincible? Is that what you think? He was a crazy old man!” She slapped him again.
“He – He was a good man.”
“Good man!? You don’t know what a good man is! My son was a good man, but he died at your hands so you could take his place as Alec’s apprentice. One would think you’d stolen enough from me, but no, you had to take my husband as well! Encouraging his crazy fits as the fever took him, making him think he’s some sort of knight or vigilante.”
“He wasn’t crazy,” Fez just couldn’t shut up.
This time she slapped him three times, flailing with the same hand. Fez felt anger welling up inside him.
“You stop that now,” he tried to command.
But she slapped him again. “Go ahead, hit me, you barbarian, you animal! You’re no better than a horse, or swine. Go ahead, hurt me! I want you to, because I want nothing more than to see you beaten or hung. My life would be a fair trade if it meant justice for the deaths you’ve caused!” This time she went crazy, slapping and clawing and fighting. Fez cowered from her, covering his face until he was on his knees, hugging his beloved chest, both for shelter and as if to protect it from her wrath. Finally, she tired of beating him and collapsed on the floor sobbing.
Fez slowly put everything back in the chest and picked it up. Turning he stared at Gareth’s still face for a moment before Beatrice broke in again.
“I hate you! You killed them both! You’ll never be his son, you bastard!”
The last comment finally got through and Fez looked at her before darting his eyes back to Gareth. A tear welled up in his eye as he looked as his mentor on the stone slab.
Sensing weakness, Beatrice continued, “That’s right, you’re not his son, and you never will be. You’re not good enough, you’re just a plaything that entertained him after he lost his wits, like a toy for an idiot. And you killed him for it!”
With that, Fez lost his composure and ran from the garden trying to choke back tears. As he ran down the path and up the street, he could still hear Beatrice behind him yelling, “You killed them both you ungrateful bastard! You killed them both!”
Only after putting considerable distance between himself and Gareth’s widow did Fez stop to rest. As he sat by the side of the road with the chest next to him, it began to rain. All of a sudden he felt sorry for himself again, and only for himself – for being a bastard, for having no family, for working in a kitchen, for living in a gutter, for having a good man die in his arms.
All of a sudden he was seized with fear. Opening the chest, his heart dropped. It was filling up with water and the note was getting drenched. He tore it open feverishly, hoping to read it before it completely dissolved in the now torrential rain. To his dismay, the ink was already running. All he could make out was the first paragraph:
I’ve told you that words and swords may forge a kingdom, but it takes a true heart to hold one. Unfortunately, it’s broken hearts and broken promises that tear them apart, which is why I need to tell you the story behind this ring.
Absolutely distraught, Fez looked at the signet ring: A long, scaly winged serpent wrapped around itself in the shape of a heart and biting its own tail. Any symbolism was completely lost on Fez as he stared at it blankly. What was it that Gareth wanted him to do?