He struck the hot sword with his hammer. The clang echoed all through his workshop, and escaped out his windows and onto the cobbled street outside. He imagined that the sound could travel all the way to the edges of his city. He hoped that to fellow citizens who didn't know him and didn't know his work, the sound of his shop might be like a church bell, friendly, inviting, uniting, and galvanizing.
His assistant Eneko watched closely. Eneko was serious about study, though still very clumsy in practice. He had come from one of the villages in the hills near the city. Sensing no future in the hills, he threw himself into the life of the metropolis instead. Working to make swords was a stark contrast to the rustic life he had come from, and he was grateful to be made an apprentice. He still wore the simple brown robes of his hometown, and still had the simple, pious personality of a country boy.
"Master Oxoa," Eneko said meekly. "You use so much effort to hammer the sword you're making."
Oxoa paused for a moment, wondering what Eneko was getting at. "Yes," he replied. "It only takes a few hours to make a sword that can last hundreds of years." He panted. He wasn't used to talking so much during his process. "We have a responsibility to make the most of those hours. Our careful work is a gift to generations in faraway times who we will never meet."
Eneko considered this, and Oxoa started carefully hammering the hot sword again, shaping it the way he wanted it. "What I don't understand," Eneko said, "is why you close your eyes so much while you're doing it. Doesn't that make it harder to get it to the right shape?"
Oxoa put down his hammer, and looked at Eneko. He didn't realize his quiet apprentice had noticed this. "Eneko," he said. "The reason for that goes back to my apprenticeship." He sighed, and sat down.
"I was your age," he said. "I was an apprentice too. My master was a hard man. His workshop was on the other side of the city, in a slum. Not just a slum... the slum I grew up in. I took the apprenticeship just to get a few little pieces of silver a month, to pay for food and clothes. Swordmaking wasn't a true interest of mine. Really, I had no interests. My life was only mischief, boredom, and waste." Oxoa paused, thinking of what to say next, his face contorted with bitterness. Eneko's eyes were open wide. He had never heard his master talk so much at one time, especially about personal things.
Oxoa finally continued. "The apprenticeship filled the hole of my life. Finally I had something useful to do every day. Finally I could apply myself, I could learn, I could improve, and I could see myself becoming part of something great. I embraced the tradition of the swordmaker, the discipline, the lore, the art, and even the clothing," he said, pointing to his own loose black robe. "With every sword I made, it was like I made another little part of myself. Every time I learned to make the steel stronger, I was making my muscles and my heart and spirit stronger, too."
"But my motivation was not only internal," Oxoa explained. "I wasn't strong enough or disciplined enough to become a good apprentice on my own. There was something else that motivated me to be better every day." Eneko was too shy to guess, but Oxoa could see in his expression that he knew what a meant.
"There was a woman," Oxoa said. "A girl, really. Close to my age, but younger. The master swordmaker's daughter."
"She was small and shy. A round face and a thin but round figure. She wore a covering on her head because she was modest. Her olive skin was light. I never touched it but it looked smooth and soft to me." Oxoa paused, mulling over these pleasant thoughts.
"When I arrived at work every morning, she would be there, sweeping out the room. Probably she was only following her normal schedule, but I always imagined that she made sure to sweep out the room when I was there so she could be there to say hello to me. As soon as I walked in, she would stop sweeping for a moment, look at me, smile, and curtsy. I had never been taught manners and I had no idea how to respond. I usually just nodded. But inside, my heart was racing, and the thought of having just seen her got my through the tedium of every day. The thought of seeing her soon kept me company during lonely nights. Just a smile and a curtsy was enough to make me feel, for the first time in my life, like I was a person and not an animal. Someone worthwhile, rather than just debris on the street." Oxoa paused again, looking down this time. What is it about sweet memories that makes people weep?
"Sometimes, the master would tell me to go fetch something upstairs, where her bedroom was. When I walked past her bedroom, sometimes her door was open, and I could see her inside, studying. She loved to read, and loved the history books of the master writers of centuries past. She could read in several languages too. I still remember seeing the way she sat at her desk. Her back was so straight. Not straight, really. It was arched in a feminine curve, I guess. Her round hips, her arching, curved back, her prominent clavicles, her sweet, round eyes. I can remember all of it so well. I loved her more than life itself."
Eneko's curiosity suddenly become stronger than his shyness. "What happened, master? Where is she? Your life here is so solitary. You're always alone and you never see anyone. You have no woman and no family." He seemed to regret his sudden forthrightness, and stopped talking immediately.
Oxoa laughed a little at Eneko's forthrightness, but his face quickly turned serious again. "Do you remember the raiders?" he asked simply. Eneko was immediately able to guess the rest of the story, but Oxoa continued anyway. "That was the first time the raiders came to our city. We didn't even see them coming or know who they were. They came from the East, so they arrived at my east-side slum first. I had lived the dissolute life of the street, but nothing had prepared me for their brutality. None of us had never seen that kind of killing and torture and suffering before."
"I was near the end of my apprenticeship. I knew all the skills, but I just needed to perfect them. The master was starting to let me make swords all on my own, so I was alone with the furnace, just in the middle of the forging process, with a hot sword and a hammer as usual. It was my first time doing the forging myself.
"The raiders came. They burst through the locked door of the workshop. The master's daughter ran downstairs to see what the matter was. It all happened so quickly. Several of them, huge men with darkness in their eyes, came in all at once. My master was close to the door, and he tried to defend us and the workshop, but it was only a few seconds before they killed him. His daughter screamed behind me. I knew how to make swords, but I didn't know how to fight really, except in the scrappy way we kids would fight on the streets. But I knew I had to do everything I could.
"I stepped in between the raiders and my girl, holding my half-melted sword, still not through the forging process. I looked at the first raider and without hesitating for a moment, I thrust the hot sword into his side, where I thought his kidneys or lungs might be. He only laughed, a great, mirthless guffaw. The wound was nothing to him and he didn't seem to notice or care. He looked at me with contempt, seeing I was just a boy with no fighting skill and no real fighting spirit, only capable of inflicting a flesh wound. Before I could block him, he drew his knife across my face, giving me this scar. The pain of it burned through me and I didn't have time to recover before he had picked up one of the iron pokers from beside the furnace and hit me hard on the head. I lost my balance and fell over in a heap by the wall. I wanted to get up again but I was seeing spots. I couldn't get my balance and I could feel myself becoming unconscious.
"Before I went unconscious, I saw the raiders walk past me to her. The only thing I'm glad about is they didn't torture her. They killed her quickly and walked past her to steal some of the tools in the shop. I guess they wanted to make their own swords. It all happened in a few seconds. I fell unconscious and maybe they thought I was dead.
"Eventually I woke up. Maybe it was a few hours or a few days later. I don't know. There was dried blood on my face. My sword had cooled in its incomplete state. I felt thirsty, but worse than that, the hole that swordmaking had filled in my life was empty again. My master was gone, and more important, his daughter, my reason for working hard and living well every day, was gone too. I never found their bodies.
"My life since then has been a long preparation for battle. Without my master and teacher, I had to perfect my swordmaking art myself. I forged swords and I forged a warrior spirit."
Eneko's mouth was gaping open in shock about all of this. The raiders had never bothered to go to the tiny town where he had grown up. He gained his composure, and asked "But that girl was your motivation for all your work. How do you push yourself to work so hard without her smiling at you every day?"
Oxoa looked at Eneko, clearly reluctant to say something so personal and important. "She does smile at me every day. When I'm forging a sword, the memories of the raiders come back. I close my eyes to try to forget them and think of something else. Every time I close my eyes, I see her smile again. I don't know if her spirit still lives. Maybe she's in Heaven, sending me smiles and hope every day. Maybe she's a spirit that lives in the swords and furnaces that surround me. Or maybe she's just a memory. But every day of work for me is sanctified because I do it for her sake."
Eneko's piety was too strong to let this pass. "My friend," he said. "Surely her spirit lives in Heaven with God."
Oxoa bowed his head to respect Eneko's simple faith. "I don't know everything about God. I hope He is caring for her spirit now. I don't know what he wants me to do. But I think what he wants is for me to turn myself into a weapon, to defend our land and our home. So that's what I have done."
The forging was only the beginning of the swordmaking process. There was annealing, tempering, hardening, and grinding still to come. Eneko and Oxoa spent the rest of the day working on these tasks, mostly in silence. Occasionally they talked about the raiders, and Oxoa's preparations for their arrival.
"I'm not the only one who has prepared for them," Oxoa said. "Many in the city have been making preparations at the same time. Maybe they're also motivated by a loss like mine, or by love. Some have been learning to fight. Some have been making weapons. And some have become scouts, reporting on the location of the raiders and telling us when they'll be back."
Eneko was focused on his work too much to follow the city's news. He had no idea that the raiders were still a threat.
"Come to our front door, Eneko," said Oxoa, walking together with him. Oxoa opened the door. Their workshop was on top of a hill, and they could see all the way to the east side of the town. There was a great gathering there, and Eneko couldn't tell what it was for from this great distance, but he knew that it must have something to do with the raiders.
"The scouts brought back news late last night," Oxoa said as he walked back towards their newly completed sword, now in the process of cooling down. "The raiders are near us, and they're traveling fast. They should be within sight of the city by sundown." He picked up the cooling sword and hefted it, feeling its weight and balance.
"Surely our militia can protect us," Eneko said quickly. Oxoa felt that he was saying it to try to convince Oxoa not to take any risks in a fight.
"I do not know whether our militia will be enough to protect us this time," Oxoa said. "All I know is that I must be with them. Eneko, you know all you need to know about our swordmaking art. If I don't return, you can carry on in this workshop, as a master now. Your apprenticeship is over." Eneko looked shocked. Oxoa continued. "I am leaving now. For our home, for my family, for the love that was taken from me, for my perfection as a weapon and a soldier." He looked at Eneko, and added, "and for God, and for duty. For all these things I have to go. It's easier to risk my life than it is to accept the certainty of living beneath my destiny."
Oxoa couldn't wait any longer. He and Eneko embraced, and with that he walked out, carrying nothing but the new sword they had made together. The sky was heavy with clouds, and in the distance, he thought he could see the dark masses of raiders climbing over the crest of the nearby mountains. As he walked, Oxoa felt that the sword was leading him, rather than him carrying the sword. He knew that he may have been walking to his death, but he felt the excitement of a boy to think of his chance to be great, to prove himself, to avenge his fallen loved ones, to defend his home, to use his swordmaking art, and to be a warrior.