Late night at the forge
|This article contains PROMOTIONS! Don't say we didn't warn you.|
[Disclaimer: This story is of Sandwich's youth and is set before some of the stories above]
It was late, almost midway through First Night-Watch, but Sandy continued to work doggedly at the anvil, her violet-gray forehead shiny with exertion. The flywheel before her had become her nemesis, the most hated enemy of her life. Twice already her father had inspected her work, pointed out the unevenness, predicted the inevitable and shameful failure of the wheel under stress. Peening-hammer in hand, she struck at its surface again and again, maintaining that body-rhythm that would produce a consistent pattern. Tap-tap, slam; tap-tap, slam. It was a slow, monotonous process; the greatest difficulty in the job was staying focused on the work, for hours at a time, lest the results be...sloppy.
Sandy found herself very poor at staying focused.
The face of Braega kept coming to mind, all the cruel things she and her friends would whisper across the room, just loud enough for Sandy to hear. Long-ears. Dark-filth. Spider-kisser. Table-top.
Tap ta-KLANG. Sandy's hammer skipped off the rim of the flywheel as she clamped her lips together, shoulders shaking slightly, willing herself not to tear up, not to show weakness. The rest, she had grown used to over the years. It was easier to ignore; she wasn't really a... one of those. Not really.
But as she and the girl-children around her had grown toward adulthood, Braega and the rest had...developed. Pudgy, girlish bodies had grown womanly, sprouting hips and breasts, causing the boys to trip and stammer. But Sandy had just grown...tall. Inches taller than any of the boys, and slender as a brush-bristle. No matter how tightly she bound her bodice around her waist, she could scarcely emphasize her hips, the meager handfuls of her breasts, the way that the others did so effortlessly. It wasn't fair...and she was the only one! Not even Auntie Vera could know what this was like.
She sniffed, shook her head, and wiped her nose on her rolled-up sleeve. Muttering, she centered the flywheel back on the anvil, and went back to work. All those boys were just stupid anyway, always talking about "axes versus hammers," and throwing dice, and seeing which could drink himself stupider, the fastest. She began her hammering again, brows furrowed, concentrating on the motions of her arm, the bounce of the hammer that let her go on longer before her shoulder and arm began to burn.
Stupid, all of them. And mean. Arguss was the only one who wasn't-
She blushed, paused deliberately to stretch. Arguss was only a year or two older, apprenticed to the Beardaxe Vester-Mason Primogenicus. And he deserved it, she had seen his work: never content with the easy, symmetrical geometrics that were 'good enough' for most. Sometimes his sculptures and reliefs seemed to flow...to pulse. Gods and ancient heroes seemed to breathe from the stone, not merely scowl in cold, abstract profile.
Now she was being stupid. She didn't know him; Arguss might be just as mean and dumb as the others. But he was so quiet, like the men Poppa worked with; not a braggart or a rowdy brawler. Even when he wasn't working, he seemed lost in thought. She would sit across the alehall once in a while...sometimes...a lot...and wonder what he was thinking of. When he worked, he often had this tiny smile on his lip, almost hidden by the braids of his beard.
She had managed to fall into a more proper rhythm, the 'prentice-smithy ringing with a good pattern, a right pattern. The impact of hammer on metal was a smooth pulse that traveled up her arm, which sent a tiny shock through the anvil with each blow. Without thinking about it, she had begun to lean slightly on the anvil, feeling the pace of her work through her hips and pelvis as well as her arm. Dimly she became aware that it felt...different.
She paused. She hit the flywheel a few more times...then, experimentally, she tapped the anvil itself. Pressed firmly against it, she lifted her hammer, and brought it down in a solid blow.
Oh. That was...oh.
She suddenly felt her face heat up, her ears burning. She looked around herself, mortified that somehow, someone might have come into the smithy. No. No one else came in here this late, it was why she liked to be here, when all the others had gone home. She leaned in once more, slender hips pressed to the surface of the anvil. She struck the anvil again. It felt good, but muffled. She wondered if...then she ran her hand over the thick leather apron she was wearing. She pursed her lips, then set the hammer down and yanked it off, tossing the grimy apron aside. When she placed her pelvis against the metal this time, she could feel its slightly chilly surface through the fabric of her work-skirt. She tapped the surface of the anvil...then harder...then a solid, ringing hammer blow. Her knees quivered beneath her. Her nipples felt tight beneath her shirt. Surely this was wrong...
As she toyed with the hammer and the anvil, experimenting with angles and varying amounts of force, her mind wandered. She thought of Arguss again, licking her lips. She thought of his hands--powerful, skilled, wielding a hammer and chisel. She could just see the gentle way his fingertips would brush across his work surface, scattering chips and dust, a confident caress on the curved surface of... the...
She dropped the hammer, barely missing her toes. She didn't notice. She was grinding against the surface of the anvil, its hard pommel pressing between her thighs, the sensations so sweet yet not...quite...there. She let out a tiny, frustrated moan, then bit her own hand, mortified at the sound. Finally she hiked her skirt up one leg, placing her foot on the edge of the raised dais that the anvil rested upon, one bare thigh pressed to its side. She leaned in--it was chilly! Yet the surface of the metal warmed quickly enough, and she moved again, fluidly, breathing heavily through parted lips. Arguss... she thought about his hands, about being touched, the shape of his lips as he blew dust off of his engravings...
She seemed to burst inside, a wonderful sensation fluttering outward from deep in her abdomen. She whimpered, dropped to her knees, clutching a handful of her skirt between her thighs in a mix of amazement and horrified embarrassment. White hair fell over her eyes, and she pushed it back, fingers dragging slowly through her hair, her pulse finally settling. She smoothed her clothes, looked for her hammer...glancing once more around the empty smithy.
Tap-tap, slam. Tap-tap, slam. It seemed so much easier to concentrate now, her mind placid and content. Tap-tap...
"Sandy! Where are you, girl?" Auntie Vera's voice could seem to shake the dust from the masonry, when she chose, booming through the hallways. Sandy started awake, lifted her head off of the History of Mine and Tunnel Architecture, Vol XXI, and slammed the massive tome closed. She hopped to her feet, scampering down the staircase.
Vera stood at at one of the gallery windows in the upper foyer. She waved the young drow over, nodded outside. "They're finally doing the finish-work on those viaduct columns, the masons have been there all day." She harumphed. "And about time. That plain stonework was an eyesore--it made the whole square look shabby. Now, make yourself useful, and fetch some ale for them from the kitchen. I believe we tapped the Green-Eye Barleystout last night; that should do. Now go! Shoo!" She waved her hand at the girl, before turning back to the window.
Sandy blinked, then sputtered, "Yes, Auntie Vera," before turning to scurry out of the room, braids trailing behind her.
"And stop running about, you little goblin! It's not ladylike!" The voice followed her out of the room, and Sandy forced herself to walk, briskly. Fetching ale was better than studying, anyway.
Four earthenware tankards in each hand, Sandy stepped out into the Torgisson Square, in front of the Stoutaxe hall. Her fingers were aching already, and she tried to walk quickly, yet without slopping ale from the heavy steins. Vera must be especially pleased, she thought; the Green-Eye was very good, expensive stuff, normally reserved for guests and celebrations. Or Tuesdays. She approached the worksite, the masons having assembled a scaffolding around one of the massive columns that rose high overhead, arching elegantly to support the walkway above. She saw the foreman--the only one carefully measuring and marking out the designs, while the others worked with hammer, chisel, and file. And the occasional muttered curse or burst of laughter.
"Uh...excuse me, sir?" Her voice cracked a bit, as she spoke. Several of the workers had paused to look down at her, and she couldn't help feeling self-conscious.
"What in the thunderin' hells do ye want, can't ye see I'm--Oh!" The foreman's grumping stopped as he saw the fistfuls of ale she carried, his brows rising slightly as he finally tore his gaze from her mugs to her face. "So what's this about, lass?"
Sandy ducked her head, a very slight curtsy as the ale caused her grip to sag. "Ale for th' workers, sir, Vera Stoutaxe's compliments."
"Well then..." He seemed to make a show of being reluctant, before reaching out and plucking one heavy tankard from her hand. "Best to be polite an' accept, with me thanks to th' fine lady. Now, just don't be spoilin' th' lads, makin' them think they'll be gettin' free ales all the day." He took a sip, his eyes widening in his dust-greyed face. "Horteg's low-hangin' hammer, that's fine stuff!" He raised his voice. "Break time for ale, ya lugs! But no loiterin'! Quickly, now!"
The masons seemed to swarm down from the scaffolding, quickly crowding around her, divesting her of her burden in a few seconds. She was left with one tankard--one of the carvers was still hunched over his work. The foreman scowled. "Don't be gobbers, boys, thank th' kind lassie." A few muttered words of appreciation, the sound muffled by upraised mugs. Sandy wandered over to the last worker--Arguss! She paused--don't blush, don't blush--and came over behind him. She tapped him on the shoulder, and he jumped slightly, looking up at last.
"Oh! Uh...g'morning. Er, after-noon," he stammered, voice trailing off at the end. He was looking up at her face; she almost shoved the ale at him.
"For you! Um. It's from Vera."
"Who?" He took the ale.
"Vera Stoutaxe." She tilted her head at the hall behind her. She couldn't think of anything to say. She rubbed her sore fingers against the bodice of her dress, working the blood-flow back into them.
"Oh. Much obliged, then." He tilted the tankard back, made an appreciative sound around its rim. He drained it in a few seconds--the rest of the workers were already breaking up, reluctantly, the foreman gesturing at the work left to be done. Arguss handed the tankard back, Sandy freezing as his fingertips brushed over her knuckles. "Thank ye, Sandy. That was very--um. Nice." He brushed his fingers on his dusty apron, pulled a chisel out of one of its pockets, examining its edge carefully.
Sandy waited for a second, but Arguss said nothing more, finally turning awkwardly back to his work. She went about collecting the emptied mugs, stacked on one workbench, and wandered more slowly back to the hall.
She was kept busy the next few days, at forge and at arms-training; and she didn't happen to cross paths with Arguss before the workers moved to a new site, another column a few streets down from Torgisson Square. In the late afternoon, she went to the finished column, admiring the new carvings adorning it; portraits and scenes in relief, between elegant vertical flutes and scrollwork. Here and there, engravings of dates, names, quotations and captions. One face of the column featured several scenes from the Victory of the Beardaxe "Axe-Beard," two hundred years ago. Her eyes moved down the column, the well-known events depicted in chronological order. At the base of the column was a broad mural depicting the Triumphal Feast of the Beardaxes, the victorious general being shown amid dwarves and humans. The Beardaxe was lifting a mug; the dwarves were celebrating. The humans were laying grateful tribute at their feet. She inhaled sharply as her eyes moved to one corner of the panel. There, just behind a cluster of the Beardaxe's bodyguards, an elven woman stood, serving ale to the dwarves. He blushed, her ears burning. There were no elves in the histories of this battle, or the parade of triumph. More so, the elf was nearly nude, wrapped in a sort of billowing, thin strip of fabric, which clung improbably around her carefully-sculpted curves, only scarcely preserving her modesty.
Sandy pressed her fingers to the stone, mouth open. Then she turned and fled back to her room.