“They say you make swords, old man.”
I wanted to ignore the voice, but it was a musical baritone much harder to disregard than the drone of insects or the sharp reek of burning wood and plastic that kept floating up from dead Scottsdale. Ugliness I had long practice at ignoring; beauty laid a stronger claim on my attention. I turned my head slightly and brought the speaker into view.
The man was tall, well-muscled but lithe instead of heavy with it, his tanned Anglo face an elegant symmetry of planes and curves. As handsome as the blades I make, and as dangerous. I nodded fractionally without quite taking my attention from Maria’s gravestone. The last fragment of my world, gone in a fever that any doctor could once have cured when antibiotics still worked.
“I did. No more.” I let the words drop like lead weights. Unwelcome memories stirred from before my America fell with the rest of the world, and left me a dazed survivor in the rubble.
The man smiled, perfect white teeth flashing beneath a waxed black moustache, and ignored my refusal. “I want to commission a sword. A very special sword, one unlike any other.”
“I always used clay molds and broke them after every casting,” I answered drily, not much caring for this self-assured princeling. “Every blade I ever made was unique. But I’m done making them now.”
He made a dismissive gesture with one gauntleted hand. “This has to be more unique! I don’t want just a pretty toy – I want a blade that can command loyalty from any man, a loyalty to someone greater than himself. I want a magic sword.”
I went very still. No, I had sworn never again, no, no . . . but some traitor part of me awoke. I gave him my full attention.
“Why do you imagine I can make such a mad thing? The world is maimed enough. If you will not make it better, at least leave it be.”
The white teeth flashed in challenge as again he ignored what he didn’t want to hear.
“I know you can. I’ve asked a lot of questions about you, talked to your past customers. You always delivered more than they dared hope for from mere steel. I dreamed about you too, Rumal Smith the Sword-Maker – and my dreams always come true.”
I tilted my head, intrigued by that last against my will. “Really? What do you do when they don’t?” My dreams had rarely come true – but my nightmares too-often did.
His smile sharpened. “I make my dreams come true.”
I raised one eyebrow, a trick I’d learned in my childhood from a TV character and could still perform long after TV had become myth. “Do you imagine you can make me do your will? If so, you are a fool.” This might be a good day to end it all and join Maria, even if he scattered my bones over the hillside when he was done with me.
He laughed then and I could see the charming boy he’d once been inside the hard man he was now. For a moment I almost came close to liking him.
“No, I have something much better to offer you than stupid threats.” He stepped across the small stone plaza surrounding Maria’s grave and set one booted foot on the low stone wall, beckoned to me.
I shouldn’t have moved. I should have stayed still and out-stubborned him. I could have –but he had managed to intrigue my traitor mind even as my heart cried no. I got to my feet and joined him.
“Look.” He waved at the Valley of the Sun, the ruins that had once boasted a bitterly ironic name. “Wreckage and despair as far as the eye can see.”
“Phoenix has seen better days,” I admitted. I could see the skeletal towers of downtown, the blowing ash of burnt-out suburbs, the fortified shopping-centers of the warlords. Green fields spread from Papago Park and other oases as starveling people dug out the old Hohokam irrigation ditches and put them back in service, weapons at their side against those who would take what little was left. Where once four million people had lived, a hundred thousand might remain. Why had the Gods ordained I must still be one of them?
“This is to be my work,” he boasted, following my gaze to the greenery. “Farms are the foundation of any nation, the base on which to build a mighty state. If it but had a leader – one with the power to unite them again, to organize the people and save them from themselves. Imagine it! ‘Zona one people again, united, powerful, choosing our own destiny. No longer the doormat of the Pache Raiders. No more contempt from the California Kings.”
The glow in his eyes was hotter than lust.
“To do that you’ll have to break a lot of heads.” I struggled against the glitter of his offering. It was so tempting . . . and he wouldn’t be deterred by me anyway . . . why not?
“From the outside or the inside,” he agreed. “Bashing in skulls by force of arms produces little more than meat to feed the dogs – and Navajo mutton is cheaper. Heads opened from the inside are a lot more useful afterwards.”
As farmers, soldiers, servants; slaves. I made one last feeble try.
“My price is high.” I named a sum.
He laughed, thinking he was triumphant. “Do as I ask and you’ll have that and more. I’ll even mint a gold coin with your face on the back and the sword on the front.” He beamed at me like a man who’s just trained a new dog. “How soon?”
“Sixty days.” I swallowed, envisioning what it would take. “I’ll need a few things – more coal, a block of good wax, clean mineral oil for the quenching bath, twin rubies for the eyes.”
“Done. But - eyes?”
I indicated his men waiting in disciplined ranks on the road below the hill. His dragon banner rippled over their heads, an ancient symbol pressed into new life for the same old purpose. Dominion.
“You want a magic sword,” I told him, speaking the truth even though he couldn’t understand it. “There will be eyes.”
Casting metal is quick; just melt and pour it into a mold and let it cool. Carving the shape of the hilt to be cast, that takes time. I had to give it thought, too. The wooing of a spirit is not done lightly, even by me. Casting a spell to uphold and support that spirit once wooed – is not quick.
Meanwhile there was the steel to heat, fold, and pound out flat again. Each time I folded it the number of laminations doubled, two into four then to eight into sixteen into thirty-two through sixty-four into a hundred-twenty-eight. At fifteen folds it contained more than thirty thousand laminations.
“Thirty thousand?” Tomas repeated incredulously as I paused to sharpen the butcher knife I’d made for him two decades ago. “What’s the point of that, Rumal?”
“A blade with that many laminations becomes strong and flexible in ways no other piece of steel can match.”
Tomas humphed, handed me two slices from the best part of a javelina haunch wrapped in leaves, and went back to his farm.
I folded the steel again and gave thought to the next step. To wield a blade, human hands require something to grip. This one would need a very particular shape.
Word came to me of his doings while I worked. Tales of victories were brought by the men he sent to make sure I had all I needed – and was using it towards his goal. I ignored their leading questions and stared down their insolence, and they desisted into hushed boasting.
Tales of the cost of those victories were brought by my neighbors, curious at my burst of activity and worried by the dragon-blazoned men that came and went.
“Have you heard what he did in Glendale?” Old Anna whispered between bouts of coughing. I riveted a new patch on her kettle while she told me of a bloody slaughter in the halls of the Jefe of Estrella, a place she’d never seen. I ignored her questions too, and she, wiser, stopped asking sooner. She left me a clay pot full of prickly-pear-fruit jam in payment.
When his men were not around my neighbors brought me melons and grapes and onions from their gardens, and slaughtered chickens and rabbits to keep up my strength. They guessed I would need it, and hid themselves from the wearers of the dragon emblem.
I prayed on Maria’s hilltop every night, trudging up there while my forge’s banked fire trickled coalsmoke into the dusty sky and the latest shape of the blade cooled and dripped oil back into the quenching bath. My arms grew weary from swinging my hammer even though I alternated one with the other. Ambidexterity is a magic all its own and I had half a century of practice – and of wear. When my grip faltered, young Diego and his cousin Mark came out of the mesquite hills to help me, wielding hammers with unsteady skill but enough persistence. The sword folded again, and again, and again, while their mothers brought leeks and carrots from hidden gardens.
There would be no hiding from the thing I was making. Perhaps they guessed that, but they helped me anyway.
My prayers grew weak and fumbling, confused as I fought through the net of dreams and hopes that he’d laid so expertly to trap me. Could the past be restored? But so much was broken . . . it was a living torment to even wonder. And still my neighbors labored for me, fed me, and waited.
Maria’s remembered words finally rescued me. She’d always been my pragmatic anchor, and still was now.
“Hope for rebirth, Rumal,” she had advised. “Immortality would be horribly boring, but the chance to do anew, ah! That’s worth praying for.”
Then I prayed with crystal clarity for the one thing that I didn’t remotely deserve, but desperately wanted. By now the act of creation had become my all, and I had something to lose again.
They brought me soup, and sage incense to help me pray, and asked of me nothing. I felt the crushing weight of their kindness and tried to hate it. Until Maria laughed at me in my dreams and showed me the weight was really a ladder they’d built to bring me that much closer to heaven, and I was humbled.
On the fifty-fifth night my wish was granted.
I heated the clay-covered mold and drained the wax out. Poured in the silvery metal, set it aside to cool. Late the next day I broke the clay, extracted the shining shape so pregnant with my hopes.
It took me three days to polish it and set the rubies. I wished I had ivory for the teeth, but metal was less prone to break. At midnight on the fifty-ninth day I joined hilt to blade and was done.
The princeling found me just after dawn, his men mustered, his cautious allies and beaten foes gathered on the old highway. All waiting to see if I had wrought what the rumors said.
“My sword?” he asked, licking his lips. His eyes were black with desire and his captains crowded my door with their stink of fear and hope.
“My price?” I reminded him for formality’s sake, even though I knew how little it would matter.
He surprised me by having a chest dragged in and opened. The contents glittered exactly as I had asked. He didn’t seem to notice that I had no means to carry off such a weighty treasure.
“Now you,” he commanded. “Show it to me.” The light in his eyes had gone beyond mortal lust.
I bowed and lifted the wrapped shape, laid it on my cleaned work-bench, and stepped back, my eyes lowered. His men crowded close and I backed away still more to allow them near, until my spine was against my forge’s rear door. I didn’t need my eyes to see how he carefully unwrapped my creation with trembling hands. Ragged cloth fell away to reveal the shining blade and its flowing script. My mortal hands had not inlaid those letters.
How his eyes kindled as he beheld the length of it! Yet he disregarded the message. Instead he saw only the copper inlaid as a rayed sun just above the crosshilts; the dragon claws clutching sun and blade both; the scaled torso that offered a slip-resistant grip; and the toothed dragon-head with its ruby eyes that glittered where a pommel should be. Glittered and glittered even in my shadowed shop.
I saw how he raised it up. He gouged one of my ceiling rafters with the razor tip, then brandished it until the air whistled. Under cover of the noise I released the latch on my back door. His men muttered reverently and knelt to him, pledging their fealty to the bearer of the Dragon Sword. Even the former enemies watching from the front door in distrust of him were drawn in to marvel, to kneel, and to bow. They all felt the blade’s mastery without knowing what it was, or caring.
He gazed over their heads to me and smiled.
“Rumal Smith,” he said in that voice like an angel. “You have delivered all that I asked. But one thing more I require. This sword must forever remain unique.”
I knew then that he would punish my success as harshly as my failure, for no other man must ever possess any blade to rival what I had made for him.
I slipped through my back door and fled up the hill.
His laughter followed. Men shouted and pursued. They were young and fit and numerous; they would catch me given time.
But he had made his choice.
I hid in the bushes and looked down over the roof of my forge at the disciplined forces beyond. He strode out the door, the sword in hand, and vaulted onto a stone that put him a yard above the crowd. A river of men flowed up to lap at his feet. I could hear his words as he spoke.
“From this day on I alone rule the Valley of the Sun! Let all here bow to me, and we will go forth to take all this land from the peaks of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean shore! We will conquer every village and hamlet, and even overthrow mighty California and trample her banners under our feet! I am the bearer of the Dragon Sword and by the power of this blade I swear it!”
He raised the sword over his head and sunlight struck fire in the blade’s script. I didn’t need to see the words to repeat them in a whisper.
“I serve only the good of life and liberty.”
Then the sword twisted in his hand and leaped free. It pivoted in a wheel of fire over his head – and plunged straight down.
Skewered from throat to groin, he tottered, turned, gazed up the hill at me hidden in the bushes. His lips tried to speak.
“Yes,” I whispered. “I gave you what I promised. A magic sword.”
Then I crept away through the bushes as screams and shouts drew the hunting men back to the roiled army. There would be more deaths as captains and warlords and simple murderers fought over the blade. But eventually it might come to the hand of one who did not desire it, who would use it as I intended.
I went to join my neighbors in hiding, to wait.