We’re moving forward
It’s amazing how much time goes into crafting words, and yet how easily they can be devoured up. I suppose it’s the same with anything really. If there’s one thing that writing does give you, it’s an appreciation of just how much work goes into a book. And yet the internet gives us the opportunity to offer bullet ratings and reviews – hours of effort appraised in a heartbeat.
Anyway – I digress once more. Let us pore over what has happened to our General Kantal. Well, we’ve found out that his given name is actually Jossie – a girl’s name no less! It clearly doesn’t sit well with our hard nosed general, and he was bullied too; bullied bad. Bad he has broken free of those shackles, and the world is his playground.
Or is it?
So the bullies will keep away from him – so what? He still has no purpose, and he still bears the blind indifference of his family. What excatly is he supposed to do with his life?
Well, we’ve actually already seen flashes of his his future (as you’ll have worked out), but how does he get there? Let’s find out.
A recap on the schedule
Here’s a recap on the dates that the blogs are going to get published:
- 26th May: Prologue (The Moment)
- 2nd June: Chapter 1 (The Now)
- 9th June: Chapter 2 (The Then | 20yrs ago)
- 16th June: Chapter 3 (The Then | 15yrs ago)
- 30th June: Chapter 4 (The Then | 13yrs ago)
- 7th July: Chapter 5 (The Then | 12yrs ago)
- 14th July: Chapter 6 (The Now)
- 21st July: Epilogue (The Future | 1yr later)
And please remember: feedback is encouraged and spread the word.
3. The Then | 15yrs Ago
It was fair to say that a reputation as a bitch-kicking juvenile didn’t win Kantal the affections of his family. Quite the opposite in fact – he was treated like a rabid dog. The smithy seemed such a small space.
At the age of fifteen, he was still, technically, the least educated in the household – but he was definitely the most learned. Conversation with his family was like counting sand, and he felt consistently wasted. When he wasn’t reading his book, his thumbs twitched impatiently. Damn, he hated this place.
“Oi, Joss.” They had taken to calling him that. It was marginally less insulting than Jossie, but it was hardly the rough title he deserved. He refused to respond to any name other than his surname. It was that or nothing.
Though when he thought about it, he did really need a forename. His father had a point.
No! It was a girl’s name! He would not wear it.
His eyes continued to tweak the words from the pages of ageing paper, layering them expertly in his mind and conjuring the imagery around them. It was the work of the woman called Delfin – the Queen Delfin; mother of modern day Delfinia. It was her story, by her hand, and it was one of the rarest pieces of prose. No, more than that. It was the priceless original; Bulge had let him keep it. The fact that the other librarians had not even noticed spoke all that was required, but their loss was Joss’s gain. She was his guide.
And his family didn’t even recognise its value either. The old adage was true: ‘ignorance is blinding’.
So much of Delfin’s life painted her as a traitorous bitch or a magnanimous monarch, but the reality was so stark; so different. She was confused, and she was scared. But she was also curious, and that’s what drove her to greatness. She was not content with the answer she was given, even when her father insisted. She had to find out for herself. She was always scratching; always searching; always probing. It was her strength, and it defined her.
And it was this strength of character that splintered the eternal Empire of Mikaeta. She broke the very lineage of written history just by being curious, and that only encouraged Kantal. He liked to think he had that same quality inside him. Now he just needed to prove it.
No. He would not recognise that name. He would not. He focussed his attention on the page and he recognised its very shape. The book was called ‘the dark side of the stone’, and Kantal had now read it hundreds of times. He never grew bored of its inspiration, and he consumed the familiar prose hungrily.
“For Ero’s sake, Kantal, will you listen to me?”
He turned with a smirk on his face. He loved winding his thick old father up.
“Ah, father – I didn’t notice you there.”
“I was calling yer bloody name.”
Kantal was exercising his linguistic skills more and more, though he hated the common twang of his accent. Nonetheless, he sounded fresher than the rest of the household combined.
“Apologies, father. All I heard was the whispering shadow of my past.” Perhaps that was too much?
“You are a girl after all.”
Yes, definitely too much. “Care to say that to my face?”
His father was huge – fifty times the proposition of Beef, who was, in reality, a sallow and flabby excuse of a juvenile. No, his smith of a father was still in remarkable shape for his age; arms like fence posts and legs to match. He could swing a hook with the best of them.
They had come to blows twice: the first time, when Kantal was thirteen, he had been humbled into submission by the sheer weight of his father. Last time, a year ago, he’d left with a black eye and two broken ribs. But he’d also left with pride, because his father was sprawled on the floor without his wits. Since then, he had insisted on Kantal.
“You cannot call yourself by your surname. It’s dumb! We are all Kantal.”
“But I am THE Kantal.”
“No, Joss, I am THE Kantal. I am senior, and I also live the name. You’re a cocky li’l prick.”
Unfortunately he could hardly argue with that – his father, and his brothers in fact, did live the name, and he didn’t. To be Kantal was to be the smith, and he was no smith. He should have used a different name, a forename perhaps, but the moment had taken him and he was now too far down the road. He needed to persist, so he would.
And he needed to not have this discussion.
“What do you want?”
“I want you to learn the meaning of your name. I want you to help me.”
That was surely a loaded request? His father hated him, and he hated his father. It was really that simple, and it was only because of the roof that they shared any proximity whatsoever. Kantal scowled at his father suspiciously.
“Come and be a smith you precious little bitch. Come – now!”
There was the tiniest appeal in that suggestion, but even greater loathing. He was an outcast in the Kantal family, so why taunt him with this suggestion? Usually his father laid into what he called the ‘scrawny shard’ of Kantal’s frame, though it was this scrawny shard that had toppled his huge father the year before. The bastard; why was he saying this?
He was sure he didn’t mouth the question, but his father responded.
“It’s because the others are out, and I have a real important job to finish. I only need yer help this morning. You can return to yer sulking this afternoon.”
“It is not―”
“I don’t have time for yer bollocks, Joss. Get out here.”
Almost every fibre of his being told him to sod the bastard, but one chord pulled in the other direction – his inquisitive streak; what would Delfin do? He may not crave a career in metal, but he was intrigued to see the trade in action; to be a part of it. It could hardly do harm to learn. That’s what his queen would do after all.
And so he followed.
He’d expected to walk right into the forge room, where the action happens, but instead he was levered into a storeroom out back. He laughed to himself and earned a scowl from his up-high father – the man dwarfed him.
They stopped over a mess of bitter and scorched iron compound, twisted and deformed where the heat had contorted the material. It was huge, the size of his father plus one, and it was entirely underwhelming – whatever it was. Kantal’s shoulders hung, and he asked the obvious question.
“What is it?”
His father was gazing at the thing as if it were offspring – a look Kantal had never felt. It seemed utterly absurd to idolise such scrap; that was, until his father spoke.
“It is a Mahani steel bloom. This is the raw material for the finest swordsmithery the world has ever known. This is Mandari steel, my son.”
You couldn’t beat a Mandahoi; and this was one of the reasons.
His father smiled, a broad thing that stung Kantal’s pride. He felt himself looking at the metallic mess – all black stains and flashes of light – and found his own jaw dropping. He couldn’t see how, but he believed his father. And he hated him for it. Did his father know what lay in his heart? That scrawled phrase still haunted him. He hadn’t known where to start with his charge, but this seemed good as any.
“How did you get it?”
“I didn’t – the customer did. This bloom is more valuable than everything I own.”
Damn. “Who is the client?”
“It is the king himself who has ordered this work.”
Kantal’s breath caught, and he recalled the brief moment he had stared upon the ruler and his son in the library. Since when was his father taking commissions from the king?
But a more immediate question jumped forth as he looked upon the twisted mess: how would it become a thing of beauty?
And more than that: “How many swords are you expecting to make? This is a lot of steel.”
When his father spoke, it took his breath away.
“One. Just a single blade. I am nervous, Joss.”
For once he didn’t correct the use of his name – his mind was otherwise engaged. He could see the trepidation on his father’s face, and very suddenly he felt fifteen. This was entirely daunting for his apparently famous father, and he felt suddenly small in consequence. The urge to succumb to his father’s word was absolute, and it now walked hand in hand with his insatiable thirst for learning. This was a fine opportunity.
“What do we do first?”
His father smiled, but it was as much a grimace if truth be told. “We break this bastard up. Only a third of this bloom is fit for use, and we need to ease that third out. And we need to split that third into three piles: char-rich; char-poor; and char-neutral. It’ll take all morning, but only then can we begin.”
His father lied – it took them all day.
When Kantal’s oldest brother returned home, he laughed at the sight of little Josie with his top off, and sauntered straight through to the forge room. Brother two was barely more sympathetic, but Kantal didn’t care. He may have actually been enjoying himself. He and his father would take it in turns to angle the crowbar into the metallic mess, targeting clear points of differential. The other would then use a heavy mallet to force the bar in, and the material apart. By the time the sun was sinking, they had three very distinct piles of impossibly valuable material, and a rather larger one of waste. It was satisfying. He could get used to that sensation.
And he ached all over, already, having repeatedly exercised muscles that were only sporadically used – at least, he rarely used them. By contrast, his father seemed unaffected by the exertion. When his father finally dragged his eyes from the piles of metal, Mother was deep and Kantal could barely make out the expression in the shadow of dusk. Somehow though, it shone through. It was a smile.
“Did you enjoy the work?”
He nodded hungrily, revelling in the delicate thread that had been woven between them. Until this moment, he had been the bastard who’d refused his role as a daughter; and a rebellious little vandal at that. Here and now, for just the briefest moment, he was a son. He almost wanted to cry, but that was not for now. That would be for later.
His father came over and slapped him on the shoulder. The smile was now hidden, only sharpening one side of his face, but somehow that was even greater. That was a smile reserved for the finest deeds of offspring. And it was pointed at Jossie. He shivered.
“Perhaps we will work this blade together. Would you like that?”
Yes he bloody well would. In that moment, it was all he could think about.
And he did grow to love the work. It suited his inquisitive side, and in all honesty, it fanned the child in him. He had spent all fifteen years of his youth playing the adult; hiding from the bullies and hiding from his family. Here though, he was his father’s son. Here he was a young smith hoping to inherit a great trade. Here, temporarily, he found happiness. Genuine happiness.
And he found purpose too. He rarely read Delfin’s scrawl.
It was just a shame it couldn’t last. Dear Mother, he hoped it could last.
His brothers both refused to work Mahani steel. They considered it a terribly poor substitute, and as Kantal quickly learned, it was. The Mandari did not have easy access to the great iron ore supplies of the Gorfinian Black Mountains; nor the Dead Sentinels even further left of, in the desolate hunting grounds of the Rhagastos. They would not even have much access to that immaculate steel imported from the Other World, though no doubt they caught some. No, the Mandari were mineral poor, and as a consequence the blooms – being formed of iron dust at best – were patchy and sub-standard.
And yet somehow they made the finest weapons in the known world. How?
It was something his brothers had no time for. They were too busy rushing through trade; drinking; whoring; and every now and then, visiting their wives. They reluctantly helped their father when he insisted, but it was always begrudging – and they would not learn. The Mandari ways stayed without their grasp.
But Kantal was hungry, and he absorbed the lessons like a sponge. Each meticulous stage was a miracle, because what they did with the steel was incredible. Beauty from a beastly mass of ore – there was magic in the act.
First the char-poor steel was smithed through an unrelenting process. It took an age, to bash that piece of metal until it was near enough a quarter of its original size. But it was essential, because with the heating and hammering, impurities were ejected, and faults were closed up. The steel was made strong, and complete, the heart of a weapon, and because this was char-poor, the steel was remarkably flexible.
And then the real work began.
The other two steel compounds, char-rich and char-neutral, were heated and layered, bashed also, but folded over one another, reheated, and forge welded into a single piece of gleaming steel. The folding created an impossible balance between deadly hard but subtly flexible. And then, because the folding was done in perpendicular layers, the toughness of the resulting steel was – according to his father – staggering.
In this exercise Kantal was the ignoramus, but he hungered to learn and that was what differentiated him. He drank the knowledge and digested it in his sleep. The whole process consumed him.
After ten days and nights, and from an eye-watering volume of base metal, they had forged a single edged sabre of exceptional quality; made from materials that should not have been usable. And with each passing day, his brothers’ smirks slid into something else entirely – jealousy perhaps. That triggered a smirk on Kantal’s own face, and he wore it often when his father stood proudly beside him.
This was one of those moments: late evening; smithy illuminated by torches; a cold wind bringing bumps to the skin; his brothers staring upon what they’d made. Kantal’s father spoke with a mischievous quality.
“Go fetch some rusty old steel, will you Joss.”
Oh the gift! Oh the bloody gift! He walked right across the forge-room and picked up a bland looking broadsword that Jeb had been working on and only recently finished. As he called to his father – his father! – to confirm its appropriateness, he struck brother one a venomous gaze.
“Will this do?”
“Aye – that looks good.” His brother’s eyes were like spitting furnaces, but he had the immunity of his father – not that he feared Jeb in any case. His father made him hold out the weapon, firm as he could, and Kantal braced himself as his father slashed down with the new forged Mandari steel. It bit deeply into the broadword – a mighty gash in the body of the thing. Jeb would need to re-work it, and Jossie laughed.
His father offered his eldest a knowing smile. “Still think this is sub-standard steel?”
Oh the joy. Oh the humanity! Was this the crest of a wave?
As Kantal left the forge-room, Jeb hissed in his ear. “I’ll get you for this.”
But he didn’t care. In that moment, he was invincible. In that moment, and perhaps forever.
His whimpering prayers morphed jarringly into a screaming whimper, and all went dark around him. No, it was not light before. But he could see his attackers, and now he couldn’t. Moisture graced his brow, sweat turning his clothes clingy; but his clothes were still on.
Including his trousers. His arse relaxed.
He was in bed. The scant sheet was piled limply on the floor. It was the middle of the night, and all was dark around him.
What was that? A dream? A nightmare?
It had all seemed so real; the Farmyard Friends all over him. Punishing him. His breath raced away and he tried to slow it, forcing his lungs to a steady rhythm. His hands were crushing the rough canvas sheet that covered the straw of his bedding. This was most peculiar. And scary.
And he was scared. Scared and angry.
How many years of his life had been scarred by that history? And now he had been free of that humiliation for threeo years – free of the horror of the Friends. Yet he’d never had a nightmare. Not one. Something hot and aggressive coursed through him, and he recognised it. It was the same thing that had driven him in his revelation. It was an inner sensation that drove him to succeed. A fear of loss. And then he understood. He’d never had these emotions before because he’d never had to fear loss. But now he did, and the sensation was haunting his dreams.
Only, what did he have to lose? Only Delfin’s words had brought this out of him before, but they were safe beneath his bed. He lay back down, breath settling, but realised he was now entirely conscious. His eyes grew to recognise the deep shadows of the midnight stretch, and they were suddenly dragged.
All was not dark.
As he tiptoed from the room, a thought struck him, and his fear swelled up – like acid in his throat. He knew immediately, and it scared him. He did now have something to lose.
His father was in the forge room; just sat there under the dancing light of a single candle. The orange glow invaded the corners of the room, and strange shadows stalked the perimeter where tools hung. As Kantal stalked in, nerves took him, but wherever he looked, there was only familiarity. He caressed the situation.
His father seemed surprised by the intrusion, and when his eyes settled on Joss, they took a moment to settle. He had been disturbed from thought.
And then Kantal saw why. The blade lay before him, reflecting the candle with awesome majesty; the dance of the metal was almost overwhelming. The patterns were astonishing.
Kantal found himself drawn to the steel – like a helpless moth. If he loved her before, then now he was obsessed. He lusted for that thing.
“Beautiful isn’t she.” He could only nod. “I was wondering whether I could take her for myself.”
“You can’t! Can you?” Kantal’s words were edged with poorly concealed hope. No – his father wanted the blade. There was a natural order to things, and Jossie was still bottom of the pile. His arse puckered.
“No son, I can’t. I could try to repay the cost, but the only thing I have that is valuable enough is this bloody weapon. It will be heartache to give her away.”
The king was coming tomorrow, and such was Kantal’s obsession that his fear spat at him, lighting a flash of anger. His fists balled and his father noticed. They were sat side by side, and the man he only now knew placed an impossibly gentle hand over his fist.
“What’s wrong, Joss. Why are you up?”
There was no option now – the possessive streak had flared, and his emotions were running hot. He felt small and frightened – frightened of a life where he had substance. Frightened of a life where he had a father, and where he wasn’t bottom. He was scared because it was the life he would never have; only now he did. As he looked at the blade before him, he knew that lump of Mandari steel had turned his life. And now it was leaving him.
You couldn’t beat a Mandahoi. But maybe Jossie didn’t need to. He had another purpose now, didn’t he?
“Come on, son. What is it?”
His face scrunched as the nightmare surfaced in his conscious self; he knew he would have to share. It would consume him otherwise.
And besides; his father needed to know. He was responsible as anyone.
“You know I’ve been bullied all my life.”
He gulped; audible tension in the grating of his throat. “I’m sorry, son. Brin told me he had seen some things. Said he couldn’t help you.”
The rage flared beautifully. “Help me? He was part of the gang.”
Silence for a long while. The shadows continued to dance the perimeter. When his father spoke, it was tinged with embarrassment.
“I have failed you, son. I’m sorry. I never should have let your mother name you.”
All fifteen years of his life were forcing their way inexplicably into his head; every painful moment. All those times he had repressed and ignored; filed away for the preservation of his continued sense. But here, now, when he was on the cusp of something normal; here it consumed him. No – it devoured him. He may have even loved his father these last days; but he hated him certainly. Hated him with a passion. He had to know.
“Do you know what they did to me, father?”
Tears screamed for release, but he would not permit it. Not yet. There would be time for that when he was allowed to have his childhood. But here, he was still the bullied. Here he must be strong.
Because his father was wilting.
“I’m sorry. Of course I know what they did. You came home covered in bruises.” There may have been a reflective glint on his cheek. “And I will repay them everything they did to you.”
The tears started rolling as the memory of his violations surfaced. His whole body tensed at the memory, and he knew that intimacy would forever be his worst enemy. He pulled his fist from his father’s grip.
“No father, you won’t. There’s no way you can inflict that punishment.”
He seemed incensed – angry, and desperate to repay. “I will, son; there is no punishment that I will not repay a thousand times over! What could they possibly have done that you consider untouchable?”
It was all but over – he would not last much longer. He had to say it; and then he had to go.
“They used me like a woman, father. They used me like the woman that my name dictates.”
Never before had his father stared at him like that; and never again neither. Jossie got up and walked to his room. When he had finished pummelling he wall, his fist was bloodied. He only got back to sleep when the tears of his childhood dried up.
When the king turned up the following day, an entire entourage with him, Kantal was expecting the order to retreat to the bowels of the smithy. But despite the tension that separated him from his father, he was allowed to stay. His father wanted him by his side; partial payment for his suffering perhaps. No! He would not let anger ruin this path to purpose. His life was on track because of this blade; and he needed to keep it that way. This was a turning point.
He kneeled as etiquette dictated.
The King stood before them, looking remarkably plain if truth be told. He was ageing, snow spreading through his thick beard and cascading about the gold crown. His cloak was white-gold, Delfinia’s colours – the colour of Delfin’s hair – but beneath that fine garment, he appeared to be wearing rather plain garb. Only the high leather boots told of obvious wealth.
“I hear it’s a fine weapon.” News travels.
“Aye, she’s a beauty.” Everyone in the smithy was on their knees, all but his father, but Kantal was forward – visible. A rarity in his short life. The King’s guard – arrayed in their immaculately polished plate – stood still, but their eyes darted this way and that, searching for threats. Kantal was only offered infrequent glances from his low vantage, but soon he would be offered a better view. A heavy hand squeezed his shoulder, and he was ushered up. And then he was there, standing before the King. Only the second time in his life.
The last time he had been sitting, and he’d been beaten to the brink. The King would not see that same soft child. Here he could be proud. Proud.
“This is my son…” His father was about to say the name, but he relented. Damn, that was warming. He may entirely forgive his father; right there. His father continued, “he helped with the work.”
And then the young man stepped forward. The youth – who was wearing similar robes and arguably more elaborate underclothes – was a mimic of the older man facially; tapered chin and high cheek bones. His hair was still dark and thick, and the fairness of his skin suggested he was little older than Kantal, if at all. And with a flash of a smile, he suddenly recognised the boy.
He had been there at the library too. He was the son; the heir.
“Then I thank you.” There was the faintest whiff of recognition in the eyes of the Prince, and for a moment Kantal feared the consequences. His heart skipped and his anger warmed his gut, but then the heir turned away. Nothing said; nothing recognised. Perhaps.
“I offer this fine decorative dagger as a gift for the work. It would not stand up to your fine craftsmanship, but it has its own subtle worth, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
Hardly subtle: it was glittering with jewels. His father was rendered speechless. He took the blade hungrily, and Jossie was momentarily jealous.
But Kantal did not need that symbol of recognition. He had the firm hand of his father, and the knowing smile of the heir of Delfinia. He had never felt so good. And perhaps more than that; he had his purpose, a genuine purpose. His life had turned for the good. Damn be to the Mandahoi.
He may never beat a Mandahoi, and for that he was sorry. But he could damn well make weapons as good as they could, and in the end, that was enough. He actually smiled.
As he followed his father to the rear of the smithy for a drink – a celebratory drink! – his eldest brother offered a threatening smile. But he would not let it get to him. Not now at least. He was king of the smithy world.
He woke to chaos. He often woke to chaos, but this was different.
“WHERE IS IT?”
Usually it was the dull clang of steel on near molten steel that stirred him in the morning – the sound of his brothers starting their day. To be fair to the idiots, they did have a remarkable capacity for early schedules even after late festivities, but it could hardly be called a quality. Today was different; his father was angry.
Kantal did not have a big room out back in the smithy, and the one source of light was through the chimney of the small hearth. There was a blood red glow to the scant illumination, and that forebode. He stretched his shoulders, creasing the sleep ache out of his neck, and then threw his legs over the side of the bed. Damn he had slept well. It must have been the fire-liquor he’d shared with his father.
“COME ON YOU BASTARDS, WHERE IS IT?”
His eyes would barely open; such was his grog. He never felt like this. He was hardly the sprightliest morning creature, but he was no slug either; the constant threat of bullies drilled that into you. He tried to shake sense into himself, and he barely heard his brother’s whimpering response. What had they done? He wanted to laugh at their pathetic display, but tiredness would not allow him that luxury. No, he was feeling mighty shit if truth be told.
And then his door cracked open and his father marched in. The fury was rabid on his face.
“Still here, then?”
The question was aimed at him, but he couldn’t work out for the Mother what it meant. He tried to shake the weariness away once more, and from the shadows behind his father, he caught a whiff of something putrid. Jeb was smiling cruelly at him; the same smile he’d worn last night. Now he was alert. He stood immediately straight.
“Of course I’m still here. Why would I be anywhere else?”
His father flicked his eyes, and Jossie was drawn to a packed rucksack. His packed rucksack. The sour smile stretched in the shadows, and he felt the cruel menace of the bullies once more. His arse puckered. He had not been subject to that cruelty for three years, but that sense was returning. It was returning fast.
“I don’t know what that’s doing there.”
“Well, let’s just have a look inside then.”
No! That was the worst thing that could happen, though he did not know why. His legs moved, but they were not in agreement with each other, and he fell to his knees. A snigger from the bastards, and it was starting to make sense. They had drugged him. And his father was ripping the items from the bag, feeling about for something in particular. Looking for whatever he had lost.
And Kantal knew what it was before he even found it. He also knew it was there, and the rising sense in his pit let him see the reality. He could not survive this. His father would not allow it.
So he ran.
As he pushed between his sneering brothers, he turned back to see the father – the same man who may have actually loved him yesterday – with venom oozing from his eyes. He held the jewelled dagger aloft, and cried after Kantal in something between desperation and mourning.
“After everything I did for you, Jossie. Why would you repay me like this?”
He could not answer because his brothers had it planned. He would never be allowed in this place again.
As he raced through the living space, he snatched up ‘the dark side of the stone’. It was the only thing he owned, a gift from Bulge before he’d died, and he was buggered if he was leaving it to the idiots. And besides – he had nothing else, now. Not even a place to sleep.